The Blues saved the worst for last but it won't change many All Black selections
It was a cruel twist of fate for the wheels to come off for the Blues at the most important time in the midst of 15 straight wins.
The lineout was a shambles, the handling was poor and the decision-making was panicked. The exit kicking did not chew off enough metres and everything played into the Crusaders’ hands.
Despite this, the Blues valiantly held on in the opening 20 minutes as wave after wave of Crusaders attack threatened to find the try line.
Leicester Fainga’anuku was bundled into touch in the left-hand corner just two minutes into game. Codie Taylor almost scored in the exact same place only for another last-ditch effort to deny him. Fainga’anuku was then held up again, resulting in a relieving goal line drop out.
That the Crusaders only had a Richie Mo’unga drop goal for their dominance in the first quarter of the game should have bolstered the Blues’ spirits, but the onslaught continued as the hosts could not, for the life of them, arrest control of the game.
The Crusaders barrelled forward runner after forward runner into the opposition’s defensive line before a forward pod finally swung the ball out the back to Mo’unga to link for a wide raid.
It was a rinse and repeat formula that the Blues didn’t have an answer for. Their defence was like slow melting ice under the pressure of the Crusaders’ heat, with the visitors continually making metres upfield and were rarely stopped behind the gain line.
If the Blues got any kind of penalty relief, it was short-lived as their lineout throw was turned over more often than not and the chance to build any phases was squandered before it began.
Star Blues midfielders Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane combined to break away downfield from a scrum play after 20 minutes, and Beauden Barrett supported with a well-weighted chip kick, forcing Sevu Reece to take the ball into touch five metres out.
The momentum swing the Blues needed was there, only for hooker Kurt Eklund’s throw to be stolen and the line cleared. The next lineout, this time 22 metres out, resulted in a Crusaders penalty for a double blown opportunity.
The Blues desperately missed the experience of Patrick Tuipulotu at lineout time. Last year’s club captain deserved to be in a game like that after all he has given the franchise, but unfortunately his sabbatical came at the wrong time for the Blues.
While Eklund will cop the brunt of the blame for the lineout debacle, the question has to be asked why the Blues’ top lineout target for the entire season, James Tucker, was not in the line-up.
Just who was running it was unclear, and perhaps the experience of Luke Romano on the field from the start would have been of more use.
Eklund’s throwing couldn’t find a target and Finlay Christie’s popgun exit kicks were so short that all the Crusaders had to do was keep plugging corners and the Blues would find a way to give them back cheap possession in quick fashion.
The Crusaders had 62 percent possession and 65 percent territory in that telling first half. If the Blues escaped only 6-0 down they had a higher chance of rescuing the game, but Bryn Hall’s try 15 seconds from halftime after 17 phases was an absolute killer blow.
It was amazing the way the Crusaders players turned up for the occasion at Eden Park, with a desire to play and a focus dialled in to the job at hand.
The team was galvanised, prepared and played with heart, above all else. They love playing for the Crusaders and Scott Robertson. They understand who, and what, they are playing for to a level that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere.
We saw Crusaders midfielders David Havili and Jack Goodhue put on some dominant hits and pressure the Blues backs into gain line losses. The Crusaders backs were clinical and accurate with their passing and kicking for the majority of the match.
Mo’unga, Havili and Goodhue would be your 10-12-13 All Blacks combination if you were picking solely off this game. However, it won’t be and rightly so, because this wasn’t test rugby.
Ireland’s lineout won’t operate at 47 percent, their backfield won’t drop every contested ball and you won’t get nearly 65 percent possession. You won’t force them into 209 tackles, nearly double the defensive load of your own side.
In this game, the Crusaders were not put under any pressure at all, which doesn’t tell us anything more about Mo’unga or Havili’s ability to handle it or pull a side out from under it. The Blues capitulated and the Crusaders did what they had to.
For that reason, Barrett must still be the starting All Black first-five against Ireland, with Mo’unga his back-up. Barrett’s speed is back, his running game is electric and he must be given the platform to use it, which wasn’t there in the final.
In terms of the midfield, Tuivasa-Sheck is unlikely to nail down the starting job at No 12 after that. He needs time and will likely be used on New Zealand’s bench when Stephen Perofeta is carried as the 10 and 15 cover.
The experienced Goodhue will likely slot straight back into the All Black midfield with Anton Lienert-Brown out, perhaps at second-five where he was used throughout 2020.
The shame about this move is that his passing and offloading game on the edge is what makes him a brilliant centre, with his ability to free up his outside man. At No 12, this aspect of his game is lost as he is asked to carry into traffic alot.
The shame about this Blues performance is they barely fired a shot. We didn’t see most of their plans because they couldn’t execute for the first 50 minutes of the game.
The million-dollar backline was rarely seen because the forward pack went broke when they were needed most.
For the Crusaders, they have been a special team for six years and, again, they rallied for another title, this time against the odds as underdogs for a memorable win.
Whatever happens with the All Blacks won’t change the fact that the Crusaders has achieved an unprecedented amount of success, which has easily been the best era of rugby at the franchise, setting the bar even higher than what came before.
The Crusaders win another title but it won’t change much for Ian Foster when he picks his first 23 to play Ireland.
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