Winger George Bridge scored a hat-trick as the Crusaders beat the Cheetahs 48-21 in Bloemfontein on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The Saders' ninth win from as many matches this season sees them return to the top of the Australasian log, as well as the overall 18-team standings. The Cheetahs, meanwhile, have now suffered six consecutive losses that see them languishing in seventh spot in the eight-team South African group.
The Cheetahs gave this match a decent crack, but a controversial disallowed try late in the first half, followed by the Crusaders' third try, was a blow from which they could not recover. As expected, the visitors lifted their game after the break and the hosts' defence continued to be exposed (they would miss 40 tackles in 80 minutes).
However, the Crusaders' win came at a cost, with All Blacks captain Kieran Read leaving the field in the 38th minute with a broken thumb that will require surgery.
Franco Smith's men made a positive enough start to the game, but Ryan Crotty's break from inside his half was a sign of things to come. Had Bryn Hall held on to the pass, the visitors would probably have scored.
They did get on the board with a Richie Mo’unga penalty, and then almost ran in a length-of-the field try after Man of the Match David Havili evaded two tacklers along the left touchline. Raymond Rhule made a cover tackle that saw the Crusaders fullback lose the ball forward with the line in sight. The Cheetahs wing, though, was run over by Seta Tamanivalu a minute later, and he put Havili over for the first try.
The Cheetahs should have hit back when Clayton Blommetjies broke away and found Nico Lee, but instead of passing to one of two unmarked men, he cut back inside and was swamped by the defence. They then turned down a shot at goal in order to push for a try, only to lose possession.
But the hosts did get their first try, through a brilliant counter-attack in which Blommetjies, Sergeal Petersen, Francois Venter and Paul Schoeman all played a big part. When the No 8 was tackled inside the Crusaders' 22, Petersen darted down the blind side and put Rhule away. Niel Marais' conversion reduced the deficit to one.
That was as good as it would get for the Cheetahs, who suffered a triple blow late in the half.
First, Bridge took advantage of some poor defending around the ruck to score. Soon after, a strong run from Ox Nche saw the prop bounce off two defenders before offloading in the tackle to Petersen, who raced over for a try, but the TMO harshly ruled the pass had gone forward. Then, two minutes before the break, Bridge collected a cross-kick and cut back inside past four defenders to score a try that gave his side a 22-7 lead.
The Cheetahs were then reduced to 14 men early in the second half when Armandt Koster was yellow-carded for a cynical infringement at a ruck. Soon after, Mo’unga received possession from a 5m scrum and got past Venter to score the simplest of tries, but they were unable to get over again while Koster was off. In fact, the hosts scored their second try while a man down, with Nche charging over under the posts.
But the Crusaders then ran in two tries in quick succession through Havili and Mitchell Drummond, to make it 43-14 at the end of the third quarter.
Bridge claimed his hat-trick with 12 minutes remaining, before two late yellow cards to Sam Whitelock and Mitchell Hunt saw the Christchurch-based franchise reduced to 13 men. That helped the hosts to score a consolation try through Petersen.
Cheetahs – Tries: Raymond Rhule, Ox Nche, Sergeal Petersen. Conversions: Niel Marais (3).
Crusaders – Tries: David Havili (2), George Bridge (3), Richie Mo’unga, Mitchell Drummond. Conversions: Mo’unga (5). Penalty: Mo’unga.
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Paul Schoeman, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Uzair Cassiem, 5 Carl Wegner, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Niell Jordaan, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Clinton Swart.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano,20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Manasa Mataele.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images