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The 'low-percentage play' that could have been the difference for the Crusaders

By Tom Vinicombe
David Havili. (Photo by John Davidson/Photosport)

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The Crusaders held firm to beat the Highlanders 17-14 on Friday evening despite having to make more than twice as many tackles as their opposition in Christchurch.

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For the second time in three matches, the Crusaders found themselves starved on possession in the final quarter, having to repel wave after wave of attack. Against the Chiefs three weekends ago, their walls eventually came down in the final five minutes, conceding two quick tries to cede an 11-point lead and go down 21-24.

Thankfully for coach Scott Robertson, the same didn’t eventuate on Saturday night with his charges managing to disrupt possession before the Highlanders were ever able to get much of a roll on. Despite that, however, a single penalty kick in the second half could have taken the game to extra time but Highlanders pivot – and former Crusader – Mitch Hunt couldn’t quite find his mark early in the spell from a handy position.

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“I mentioned it through the week and we talked about it, our efforts and what was gonna be required because they were desperate and a lot of it was true,” Robertson said following the match. “They were desperate, they were hungry and they had opportunities to win that many times.

“You don’t often see Hunty miss those kicks. Go to 17-all, [it would be] a different game. But we hung in there and that’s what you’ve gotta do to win comps.”

 

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On the flip side, Richie Mo’unga nailed all three of his attempts on goal, including what eventually turned out to be a crucial 26th-minute penalty. With the scores so close, the Crusaders even attempted to land a long-range right on half-time but David Havili couldn’t quite convert the opportunity. Still, Robertson had no qualms with the tactic.

“We’re really pleased [about Mo’unga’s penalty goal]. That’s why we gave Davey one as well,” Robertson said. “It was probably a pretty low-percentage play but if he nails it, we’re running six points up and then if you score again [ you’re a try clear].

“With the grease on the pitch, playing from behind is tough, we’ve done it ourselves, so it’s good to be in front and have a buffer.”

Said “grease” came courtesy of a sudden shower hitting shortly before kick-off, which meant an expansive game wasn’t necessarily out of the question, but it was always going to be difficult to execute. Despite the Crusaders hammering the message home during the week that a strong start was imperative after the Highlanders had built a 13-0 lead in the previous outing between the two sides, Robertson was less than impressed with the opening quarter, when the Crusaders were again put under pressure and conceded the opening try.

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“We talked about having a good start and we didn’t,” Robertson said. “[We] played from behind.

“They put the sprinklers on. [The pitch] dried as we were warming up and it just sort of took away a little bit of ball-in-play which both teams love to do.

“We put pressure on ourselves as much as they put on with the lineouts, losing the kick battles and aerial battles. We went back to relying on our defence in critical times and winning some critical moments. We’re pleased but not satisfied.”

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As was the case against the Chiefs, when the Crusaders did eventually get hold of the pill they weren’t able to build any pressure of their own, coughing it up and handing attacking ball back to their opposition. At one stage in the second half, after enduring a slew of Highlanders strikes, the Crusaders were able to force their way into the opposition 22 but quickly turned over possession when replacement halfback Bryn Hall bobbled the ball at the base of the ruck.

“[The errors] just compounded, put [pressure] on us,” Robertson said. “We just put pressure back on ourselves so we can’t actually execute the little things right up their end.

“We defended for what felt like 20 minutes. Got up the other end, [then there was a] little knock-on. Bryn, he’ll be gutted with that because we were just putting pressure on them.”

While the Highlanders certainly came closer to landing a killer blow – with Hunt missing a regulation kick to the corner to go with his mis-struck penalty – the Crusaders ultimately held strong and can now move on to the next challenge – although they’ll almost certainly have to do it without reserve hooker Shilo Klein, who was rightly sent from the field after making a dangerous tackle on All Blacks front-rower Ethan de Groot.

The Crusaders are set to take on the Hurricanes in Wellington next weekend.

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