'That could be the comp': Crusaders boss Scott Robertson's stark admission following win over Force
The Crusaders emerged victorious at Orangetheory Stadium in Christchurch on Friday as they defeated the Western Australians 29-21 to keep their unbeaten run in the cross-border competition alive.
However, the Force landed a damaging blow in the last act of the game as Jordan Olowofela scored a breakaway try from a length-of-the-field counter-attack to deny the Crusaders a valuable bonus point.
As a result, the reigning Super Rugby Aotearoa champions could miss out on the competition final as three of the other Kiwi teams – the Blues, Hurricanes and Highlanders – all remain undefeated and are vying for a place in the top two.
The Crusaders were aided by the Blues’ failure to pick up a bonus point win over the Reds in Brisbane on Friday, but the Auckland franchise still remain ahead of their Cantabrian rivals on the standings with just one more round to play.
The Hurricanes and Highlanders, meanwhile, both have a game in hand, meaning the Crusaders are now reliant on results to go their way if they are to qualify for the June 19 final.
Should the Christchurch-based side miss out on a top two spot, it will be the first time Robertson hasn’t won a trophy since joining the franchise as head coach in 2017.
It’s no surprise, then, that Robertson was disappointed at his team’s inability to finish the match with three more tries than the Force, something of which he put down to poor game management.
“We talked through all the scenarios if we were up and what it would look like,” Robertson said shortly after the match.
“Five points is five points, and when you’re 15 up, you could walk out of there after a dogged performance against the Force, but we were still trying to score and it was a great turnover [that sparked the final counter-attack].
“Like I said, we stayed in the fight, so we could have been better with our game management.”
Olowofela’s try was an exhilarating one, as reserve hooker Andrew Ready snaffled a turnover at the breakdown 10 metres from his own tryline before his teammates shifted the ball wide to exploit some space on the wing with only seconds to play.
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After taking play up to halfway, Force captain Kyle Godwin kicked the ball in behind the Crusaders’ defensive line as nobody was covering the backfield.
Olowofela then outpaced Josh McKay to get to the ball first and score the decisive try that could deny the Crusaders their sixth title in five years.
“We were calling from the box, ‘Get Joshy, or get whoever it was, just to get back there and cover that backfield’,” Robertson said of the try.
“They just saw space and took it. We defended so doggedly for long periods of time and then that quick turnover, bang, and that was it.
“That could be the comp. Pretty quickly, it can change, so it’s a little bit out of our hands now, so we’ll be watching like everyone else to see what happens.”
Although he was impressed with his side’s fortitude to hold out the Force for long passages of play inside their own half throughout the second stanza, Robertson said his side “weren’t smart” or “disciplined” enough to secure all five competition points.
Some may argue that’s the price he has to pay as a result of his decision to rest a raft of frontline players, including sensational first-five Richie Mo’unga, who was rested and replaced in the starting lineup by Fergus Burke.
However, Robertson was full of praise for the 21-year-old pivot, who was starting in his first-ever Super Rugby game since signing with the Crusaders last year.
“Ferg was solid for a lot of the game. He was pretty decisive, a lot of his kicks for touch were good, kicked out of hand well, defended strong, had a great, solid game.”
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As it stands, the Crusaders can finish on a maximum of 23 competition points, but Robertson said he believes that might not be enough to secure a berth in the final.
“It’s 10 into two, we understand that. We knew it was going to be a points race just as much as a normal competition.
“It’s not top four, it’s top two. It’s just how much you can mount up, and especially after the first couple of rounds where we’d got to and we thought 24 [competition points] might have been about right. 23 might miss out, so we’ll see.
“There’s plenty more action ahead. It makes it more interesting, doesn’t it?”
Asked whether he had faith in the Reds or Brumbies, the two Super Rugby AU finalists, to upset the Hurricanes and Highlanders in their final three collective matches and help the Crusaders reach the final, Robertson remained optimistic.
“We’re all hopeful now. They’re good quality teams and anything can happen on the night, for sure. We’d just liked to have kept that in our hands. That’s the disappointing thing, and the boys will be disappointed.
“We were clearly here to do a job, just to get the win, plus the bonus [point, but] we didn’t. It wasn’t our finest performance. We wanted to be really disciplined. We worked in a lot of areas, [but] couldn’t build any pressure.”
The Crusaders are scheduled to finish their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman round-robin against the Rebels at AAMI Park in Melbourne next Saturday, but that fixture could be relocated due to Victoria’s recent COVID-19 outbreak.
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