What a remarkable comeback as the Crusaders came from behind to take the points and deny the Blues anything from an entertaining encounter.
As we saw two weeks ago in Dunedin and again last week in Brisbane, this Crusaders team does not know when it is beaten; which must be a worrying sign for all of the other title contenders. I am starting to see comparisons with this team and the great dynasty that Alex Ferguson built in his days at Old Trafford. I will say it again, this team just does not know when it is beaten. Self-belief in your ability and your systems is omnipotent.
Last season, in some respects, would have been pencilled in as transition season. If you ask the players, staff, and staunch Cantabrian supporters (as I did when in Christchurch for the All Blacks v South Africa test last year) the notion of a transition season would have offended them. In reality though, when you lose arguably the two greatest players of all time you are going to feel the pinch. Not this season; Scott Robertson has got his charges believing in themselves again, he has them playing to their strengths, and he has made a wise choice with Sam Whitelock as captain. We should not underestimate this move. We all remember Zinzan Brooke captaining the Blues when the immortal Sean Brian Thomas Fitzpatrick was also in the side, and captain of the All Blacks. Graham Henry saw the wisdom in this approach that back then and I believe Robertson has recognised the immense workload that Kieran Read has with his All Blacks commitments. Wise choice Scott, very wise choice!
So to the game, and what a game it was. The Blues came out firing and Patrick Tuipulotu was into everything. He carried strongly, he was cleaning out players, and you could see glimpses of All Black material. On top of this, the intent from the Blues to push the Crusaders around the field, push that 50/50 pass, and push the boundaries was paying dividends. The turning down of shots at goal for kicks into the corner was refreshing and continued to build the pressure on the Crusaders who had little answer to this Blue wave. In the eleventh minute, a series of quick passes found the in-form Pulu who held on and held on, and then with a back-hander to Duffie, opened up space for Moala to tip toe down the touchline and score. They made it look so easy. And so it was for the rest of the half, save for the Manasa Mataele try.
Pulu had the ball on a string, and with his pace and vision honed on the Sevens circuit, he was devastating. Moala, on the other hand, was simply brutal; his direct running and intelligent lines were things to behold and the partnership he is building with Rieko Ioane is something special. Defenders don’t know who to focus on with this pair as they are both frighteningly good. With SBW waiting in the wings, Tana is building a midfield to behold. As the half-time siren sounded it was almost too good to be true for the Blues, and when Piers Francis the Enigmatic Englishman slotted over to make it 24-5 you really thought that was that.
— The Blues (@BluesRugbyTeam) March 17, 2017
The Crusaders had other ideas however, particularly their talismanic leader Whitelock. They played the territory game well and in the 51st minute found themselves on the Blues line and in control of a rolling maul. A rolling maul set up by the perfect take from Whitelock, and when Pete Samu was awarded the try there was a feeling that the Blues would not be able to hold on. And so it transpired. The Crusaders narrowed their focus and point of attack and let their incredible forwards take the game directly to the Blues, who had little answer to the shift in momentum. The second try of the comeback was again built on a rolling maul from an outstanding take by Captain Fantastic Whitelock, this time at the back of the lineout. Ben Funnell was the man at the back of the maul when it crossed the line and his name will go down in history as the scorer, but this was a real forwards try and they can all take credit. The damage had now been done.
The try that sealed the comeback and took the Crusaders level was again built on positional play and a pick-and-go regime that showed real patience, again harking back to their tremendous self-belief. No one panicked, they knew the defenders were getting tired and Mitchell Hunt picked his time to run at the gap created by the pressure and crashed over in the desperate, but ultimately ineffective tackle by Jimmy Tupou. How apt that it was he who again completed the comeback, just as he did in Brisbane a week ago. The fifth and final try for the Crusaders had an air of inevitability about it. The conversion from Hunt put the final nail in the coffin and the Blues were ultimately left with nothing.
— BNZ Crusaders (@crusadersrugby) March 17, 2017
Scott Robertson will be concerned about shipping these early points, and will not want this habit to continue, but he will be incredibly pleased with the way his team doesn’t appear to be phased by scoreboard pressure. This is the Crusaders best start to a season since 2008, which coincidentally is the last time they lifted the trophy.
The Blues return home next week to host the Bulls, whilst the Crusaders will play host to the Force.
Author: Steven Prescott
I am a total sports fanatic; it is as simple as that. I love all sports, and when I’m not sitting at my computer living my dream with The 1014, I am planning adventures. The last time I did this I ended up convincing my wife to cycle 26,125km across three continents, and 22 countries with me as part of the Pedalling Prescotts.