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Overlooked Crusaders' back row play their part in stunning the Blues

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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The Crusaders loose forward unit was overlooked by the All Black selectors but they played their part in upsetting the Blues at Eden Park, who had three All Black loosies in the gameday 23 in Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Dalton Papalii.

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Cullen Grace, Tom Christie and Ethan Blackadder, who was already ruled out with a season-ending injury, were all missing from Ian Foster’s All Black squad named on Monday as the selectors preferred other options.

Crusaders No 8 Grace was pushing for a recall after being selected in the squad in 2020 and debuting that year off the bench against the Wallabies in his lone test appearance to date.

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The 22-year-old came up with two turnovers against the Blues in the final, both of which were line out steals against the malfunctioning Blues set-piece. He finished with 12 tackles in a performance Scott Robertson described as worthy of an All Black.

“I think just how heavy his shoulders are, how hard he hits,” Robertson said of Grace.

He just keeps getting up. His skillset’s strong. He’s a great player. I’m just really proud of him.

“Did a lot of work with him, look after the loosies, and to see him perform like that over the last couple of years… Obviously didn’t make the All Blacks after making it [in 2020], he took it hard and he just really focussed on playing well.

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“But playing at a final level and coming off with an All Black performance, I thought it was.”

It was also a memorable night for Argentinian blindside flanker Pablo Matera who came up with the play of the night when he put through a grubber kick in-behind the Blues. Sevu Reece claimed the loose ball and scored the try to seal the game.

Scott Robertson revealed he had told Matera to put away the kicking game after a moment earlier in the season didn’t come off, but was happy his international recruit kept the option available.

“He did one [grubber] earlier in the year – I think it under the roof [against] the Highlanders and it was like oof,” Robertson said.

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“I said ‘Look, might just have to put that away’, And he’s, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I won’t do one again’. Then I just said ‘Mate, good on you, you trusted your instinct.’

“That was world-class, wasn’t it? Just the weight of it and [how] it landed. He pretty much can do whatever he wants now.”

Matera was the captain of the Jaguares side that made the Super Rugby final in 2019 but the 19-3 loss to the Crusaders dashed his championship dreams.

A driving factor in wanting to join the Crusaders was the chance to win a trophy for the first time in his life, as the 2019 final was the closest he has got to winning a championship.

His Super Rugby Pacific final was in doubt after he earned two yellow cards in the semi-final against the Chiefs, but he was free to play after escaping a suspension from the judiciary.

“Him playing this game’s huge for us. We didn’t have too many loose forwards left, really, did we, with injuries and Ethan out,” Robertson explained.

“Him to play, never won anything… When we had the conversation when he rang from France he said ‘Look, I want to come over and win a championship – I’ve never won anything’.

“He’s obviously won one test match against the All Blacks which is a euphoric moment but for him to win a championship… He wanted to win and learn and make a better life for his family and he’s done that over this period of time.”

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