The Reds targetting of Mo'unga backfired and they were punished by the Crusaders for playing small
Two strong phases over the gain line setting up a great platform for a strike play. With no break forthcoming, James O’Connor thread a grubber into the backfield putting pressure back on and forced a goal line drop out.
The promising start was to be undone very quickly as poor handling from Lukhan Salakaia-Loto gave possession back straight after David Havili’s drop out. The Crusaders were then given the same attacking platform at the other end from a penalty.
They tried to whip the Reds early like they had the Brumbies the week before, going side-to-side from edge-to-edge in search of the weak link. The Reds actually held strong, forcing the visitors back about 20 metres over four phases before forcing a turnover.
It was good signs for the Reds. It’s one thing to pressure them, but another entirely to withstand a few punches. They passed the first test.
And then, just like that, they shipped seven points from the scrum trying to pull a rabbit-out-of-a-hat, throwing a complex strike play from their own 22.
With Richie Mo’unga defending at centre, it looked like an opportunity to expose the slight frame of the All Blacks first-five. Hit them while they weren’t expecting anything, perhaps. It was bold and confident, yet stupid at the same time.
The wide play called sent Jock Campbell and Bryce Hegarty running into Mo’unga’s channel. Of all the players to send at Mo’unga, those two aren’t the ones to terrorise and torment the Crusaders’ main man. At least find a way to get Suliasi Vunivalu or Hunter Paisami in Mo’unga’s path.
The shifty Campbell may have great feet but is no bigger than Mo’unga himself, while Hegarty is an old-timer in the side for experience with no top end speed or great attacking reputation.
Mo’unga covered both with ease, holding off Campbell and then chopping Hegarty in half once he had the ball. He was up on his feet faster than the Reds runners could get around the corner, and pounced immediately on the dropped pass on the next phase to stroll over for a gift try.
It was a failure by the Reds that backfired in the worst possible way. Attack the Crusaders’ best player and then have him shut down the play, steal the ball and grab a demoralising try.
The ambition was commendable, the execution far off the pace and set the tone for the match.
Then came the Reds’ kicks, which were attacking-focused but inaccurate and uncontested. A few long nudges tried to force the Crusaders back to hold some territorial advantage. It worked for a bit before an O’Connor chip kick couldn’t find the mark.
Within two phases, Mo’unga was through the Reds’ line and into the open field. Square passing and fast hands by the Crusaders forwards freed their first-five, exposing fragilities in a tired line between Hegarty and Hamish Stewart trying to recover from attack into defence.
Mo’unga linked with Sevu Reece out wide and the Crusaders were up 14-0 in a flash after just 12 minutes.
The Brumbies showed the way last week but the Reds hadn’t paid attention. Despite being a frustratingly agonising watch, keeping the game slow worked in the Australians’ favour.
Scrum reset after reset helped keep fuel tanks full and the game close. It disrupted the Crusaders rhythm completely.
You do not kick frequently downfield and in play to the Crusaders. Get it out. Stop the flow. Trying to play at the Crusaders’ tempo is a recipe for disaster on a dry track.
Another O’Connor chip kick, this time for himself, was an easy recovery for the Crusaders and ended up with Cullen Grace galloping over 40 metres to score before the 15th minute.
For all intents and purposes, the game was over right then at 21-0.
Just 11 percent of the Reds’ kicks on the night were contestable compared to the Crusaders’ 38. Nearly 70 percent of the Reds’ kicks were attacking chips, grubbers or cross-field kicks but failed to yield any major results other than giving away ball which the Crusaders capitalised on.
In spurts, the Reds were able to trouble the New Zealand champions and make in-roads with ball-in-hand.
Vunivalu, Harry Wilson and Taniela Tupou were dominant ball carriers who made the gain line regularly, setting up great platforms to attack from. Tate McDermott was also a handful around the ruck and made a quick play to catch them napping for a smart try.
Wilson, in particular, was a warrior among men for the Reds. In addition to his hard work in close, he came up with two big plays while his side was down a man to add some respectability to the scoreboard.
However, a few stars cannot make up the difference against the Crusaders. The weak links will be found.
It was not a happy night for Hegarty and Campbell out wide. The Reds fullback’s overall performance was simply not up to scratch for this level, the less said about it the better.
They are by no means responsible for all the blame, but playing small-ball has to come with trade-offs in playing style. You cannot run Hamish Stewart on a crash line off set-piece and expect not to get held up for example.
It is not enough for Hegarty, Campbell and Stewart to make one-on-one tackles on forwards when the offload option is available, and when they completely whiff on the tackle altogether, well, there is no hope.
When the kicking is hopeless and plays into the Crusaders’ hands, there is no hope. When you fall down 21-0 after a quarter of the game, there is no hope.
Is this a harsh assessment of the Reds? Should we expect more? Yes, we need too.
This is largely the same Reds side and coaching staff that pushed the Crusaders in early 2020 at home and finished with a 24-20 loss. A 63-28 scoreline a year later cannot be passed over lightly, for the sake of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Although the Reds are Australia’s champions this year, this isn’t the Wallabies and little should be read into the grim scoreline between the two clubs when projecting how things will play out later this year. Or the rest of the results so far that have fallen 10-o in New Zealand’s favour.
All it shows is the depth possessed by the two counties is on a different scale, and Australian teams can self-destruct easily as a result.
The performances of players like Wilson shows there is genuine quality available to the Wallabies, and, when put together, they will present a much tougher ask than their Super Rugby sides.
The good news for the Reds is it is only up from here. The bad news is clear for everyone to see until internationals return.
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