Rugby: Crusaders' timing perfect

The Crusaders are moving into top gear just as the playoffs loom. Pictured are Zac Guildford (left), Sean Maitland and Israel Dagg. Photo / Getty Images
The Crusaders are moving into top gear just as the playoffs loom. Pictured are Zac Guildford (left), Sean Maitland and Israel Dagg. Photo / Getty Images

Crusaders 38
Force 24

The play-offs must be coming, the Crusaders are suddenly looking ominous. Richie McCaw in particular - supposedly not the player he once was - had an imperious look to him last night.

For 40 minutes he and his old mate Dan Carter had the game by the scruff of the neck. The pair of them had a steady hand on the tiller and with 32 points and the bonus already secured by half-time, coach Todd Blackadder chose to take his two big guns off.

There was no need to leave them out there - the war really begins this week. The Crusaders didn't know their preliminary playoff opponent until early this morning, but were expecting to be facing one of either the Sharks or the Bulls.

After that, depending on what happens with the Stormers, the Crusaders are likely to be heading to Cape Town for the semifinal proper if they make the last four.

There is no team other than the Crusaders who would be confident about winning in Cape Town. They did it twice last year - once heroically in the round-robin and then again in the semifinal.

They will fancy they can do it again having already outplayed the Africans earlier this year. But the beauty of the Crusaders is they never think that far ahead. The only thing they will listen to in the next week is the rumbling discontent that has lingered since Will Genia scampered a ridiculously long way in last year's final.

The All Black skipper, even having gained his 100th cap and coveted World Cup, is still a little dirty about the Crusaders' defeat in Brisbane last year.

That was a sour note on a phenomenal year and McCaw and his Crusaders chums are itchy for redemption.

That was apparent last night when they flicked the switch and blasted the Force off the park in the first half. It was breathtaking at times.

The skills were sharp and the ability to break from deep, keep the ball alive and support the ball carrier left the Force gasping - although it did fade in the second half when they emptied their bench.

The Force were able to claw some respectability when the Crusaders came off the boil - but that so often happens when the game is done and dusted and the dominant side has mentally and physically checked out. There seems little point in dwelling on that second phase - the real deal was seen in the first: that was the true Crusaders.

There was considerable venom in the Crusaders' counter-rucking and more times than the Australians would care to remember, they were smashed off ball they would expect to be theirs.

Intense and accurate - just the qualities all coaches want to see from their teams at this stage of the season. The pressure will increase in the next two weeks and the ability to do the little things well makes all the difference.

This is usually what sets the Crusaders apart and they are gearing up nicely again. They had to dig in, scrummage their socks off and then tackle their hearts out to beat the Chiefs last week.

Last night was elevating the speed of their attack, making sure the passes were in front, that the support came from depth and that the platform was initially set. All that happened in the first 40 - not so much in the second.

It was also partly about making a statement - about making sure that all the teams left in the competition were left in no doubt about who had momentum coming into the critical stretch. It was noticeable too that Israel Dagg - a player with a big game temperament - was more accurate than he's been all year.

Crusaders 38 (I. Dagg, S. Maitland, A. Ellis, M. Todd tries; D. Carter 2 cons, 2 pens; T. Taylor 2 pens) Force 24 (K. Godwin, Z. Homes, A. Mafi try; B. Sheehan 2 cons; B. Seymour pen; K. Godwin con)

- Herald on Sunday

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