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'Like they had our playbook': Crusaders reveal title-winning lineout secret

By Tom Vinicombe
Scott Barrett takes a lineout. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

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If the Blues were to have any chance of besting the Crusaders at Eden Park in Saturday’s Super Rugby Pacific final, they needed to start by at least getting the basics right at the set-piece.

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So often a strength for the Auckland-based side this year, the Blues have become known for their strong set-piece thanks to the presence of a number of All Blacks in the pack coupled with some seasoned pros running the lineout.

It wasn’t to be, however, with the Blues’ scrum and lineout falling to pieces against a hungry Crusaders unit that never failed to challenge Blues ball and disrupt possesion.

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Reacting to the first All Blacks squad of the season.
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Reacting to the first All Blacks squad of the season.

The Blues finished the match with just a 47 per cent success rate at lineout time, conceding 10 of their 19 deliveries against the head. While the scrum looked to have the upper hand in the first half, any semblance of dominance caved in the final quarter after some exceptional work from Crusaders replacements Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell, who well and truly got the better of the far more experienced combo of All Blacks Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi.

“We obviously encountered a very good Crusaders side that piled on a lot of pressure and we just weren’t able to get our game going, which was hugely frustrating,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald following the eventual 21-7 defeat.

“They were able to steal a lot of our lineout ball, they put pressure on at the scrum and the breakdown – three key areas to winning any game, let alone a final.

“We were unable to play the way we wanted to play and they have obviously been in a few finals and they knew how to do it well, and they did.”

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Stand-in Blues captain and first five-eighth Beauden Barrett added that without any regular front-foot ball, it was difficult for his side to really build into the match.

“They certainly had a strategy to sort us out at set-piece time, they certainly put us under a lot of pressure and spoiled our tempo and flow that we like to play,” he said.

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“It was frustrating we couldn’t get into our game and whenever we did get going, it was sort of not on our terms. We were forced to make a bit of stuff up.

“We’ve got to give them credit. Their defence was impressive and good enough to win it tonight.”

Such was the lineout dominance – with the likes of hookers Kurt Eklund and Soane Vikena, and number one lineout target Tom Robinson all struggling under pressure from the magnificent Sam Whitelock – that MacDonald mused it was almost as if the Crusaders knew their calls and strategies right from the get-go.

“They got up like they had our playbook,” he said. “They were reading our plays and causing a lot of trouble there. We tried variations and we just weren’t able to get quality ball to launch off.

“The scrum was sort of similar too, really. We had some dominance for a little bit and then they were able to come back and apply dominance.”

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Crusaders captain Scott Barrett revealed that his side had always planned to try disrupt the Blues’ ball – especially thanks to the wet weather forecast for Saturday night – and that his troops had put in some extra work during the week in order to get the upper hand over their northern rivals.

“Finals footy is a game about pressure and that’s something we talked about this week,” he said following the victory. “If we could pressure their set-piece – their scrum was dominant at times, particularly throughout this season, and we had to muscle up there – and at the lineout, we saw a few opportunities there if we could just get up in the air, [especially with] greasy ball, we could accumulate some pressure and we did that pretty well.

“I think we had a clear plan. We put a lot of time into it, meeting on the day off and throwing out ideas with (reserve lock) Quinten Strange and (forwards coach) Jason Ryan behind the scenes and putting a lot of work into that. We got the reward tonight, which was pleasing.”

The Crusaders scored two tries to the Blues’ one, with flyhalf Richie Mo’unga adding 11 points off the tee courtesy of a conversion, two penalties and a drop goal. While the Blues’ late score to Finlay Christie (off the back of a Crusaders error at the back of a scrum deep inside their own 22) gave the Blues some semblance of hope, the Crusaders eventually snuffed it out and finished up as deserved – and comprehensive – winners.

The Blues clearly struggled to penetrate with the ball in hand – not once heading into the final had they scored fewer than two tries in any game throughout the season – but the matter of the fact was that they had few opportunities to build momentum, few opportunities to test out the Crusaders’ defence and few opportunities to really put up much of a contest against the red and black machine thanks to their continual struggles at the set-piece.

MacDonald summed up the match nicely:

“10 missed lineouts is hard to live off. It’s as simple as that really.”

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