So near, so far, for the Blues. The Crusaders extended their unbeaten run against Super Rugby opposition in Christchurch to 36 matches, by delivering another lesson in patient persistence and ultimately triumphing 26-15.
The Blues arrived with the required attitude and intent to challenge the benchmark that is the Crusaders. For 50 minutes Leon MacDonald’s men were in control, too, but as many others have discovered, nothing less than a complete performance is good enough to halt the relentless red machine.
In many ways this match could be the rebirth of a once great rivalry – the Blues proving they are close to reaching the top echelon. Just not close enough tonight.
For now, the Crusaders deserve to retain the mantle.
The question of whether the Blues are the real deal received an answer of sorts as their seven-match unbeaten run came to an end. They can take pride from this performance, however, with ill-discipline and errors under the high ball in the second half proving costly.
Will Jordan finished the job with the Crusaders 75th minute try but it was Richie Mo’unga who near-singlehandedly took it upon his shoulders to spark his team’s second-half comeback victory which sees them place one hand on the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa trophy.
It was evident from opening exchanges that this match would be on a different level to anything we have witnessed thus far during Super Rugby Aotearoa. While frustrating lengthy scrum resets and breakdown penalties stunted flow, these two previously undefeated teams delivered a match of test-match quality.
The game exploded into life in the second half when referee Paul Williams awarded a contentious scrum penalty to the Blues five metres out from the Crusaders line. Akira Ioane tapped quickly and a couple of wide passes later brother Rieko Ioane crashed over to give the Blues a six-point lead after Braydon Ennor charged Otere Black’s attempted conversion.
That strike sparked something within Mo’unga, the All Blacks first five-eighth pushing his side towards victory. Not long after a cheeky quick restart Mo’unga delivered a brilliant cut-out ball that put George Bridge into space on the outside. Bridge found Mitchell Drummond back on the inside, and the Crusaders stole a one-point lead for the first time in the match.
It was this moment that turned the match.
After being lulled into a nervous dim for much of the contest, the Christchurch crowd found their voice as 18,000 attempted to will their team home. Once they took the lead the Crusaders never looked like relinquishing the momentum.
Led by an impressive physical effort from their forward pack, defensively the Blues were largely superb. They came off the line at pace and repeatedly knocked the Crusaders ball carriers back. Their kick chase, goal-line defence and pressuring kickers all set the tone.
The Blues took the game to the Crusaders. They attacked the breakdown where Dalton Papalii asserted his presence while the Blues hounded the Crusaders’ key decision-makers, Mo’unga, David Havili and Bryn Hall, into uncharacteristic errors such as booting the ball out on the full.
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Midway through the first half the Crusaders turned down a regulation penalty attempt and Mo’unga kicked the ball dead in goal – one small example that they were rattled by the Blues early.
With the limited opportunities the Blues had with ball in hand they used tactical smarts to nudge the ball in behind and varied their attack on other occasions by using the width to bring the elusive Mark Telea into the game.
Discipline was the one weak point for the Blues as they conceded an 8-3 first-half penalty count. Beauden Barrett was twice pinged for coming in from the side of the breakdown and it was really only these collective infringements that allowed the Crusaders to close within one point at halftime.
This result was a reminder of how far they’ve come, and the growth they must continue to strive for to reach the bar that the Crusaders set.
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