The Crusaders produced a composed and clinical performance in the final quarter to beat the Blues 26-21 in Auckland on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
There can be no doubt that the New Zealand conference is the strongest and most competitive in Super Rugby. On Saturday, the fifth-placed Kiwi franchise outmuscled and outplayed the tournament leaders for much of the contest.
For 60 minutes, the Blues were on top. The hosts dominated the collisions as well as the breakdowns. The hosts controlled the tempo, and looked to be on course for a deserved victory.
For 60 minutes, the Blues loose forwards outplayed their more fancied Crusaders counterparts. Jerome Kaino sent a message to the All Blacks selectors with a powerful performance at the gainline. Kara Pryor was equally dominant in contact, and got through a lot of defensive work.
The Blues led 15-10 at the break. They continued to apply the pressure after halftime, and the scoreboard reflected their superiority after 50 minutes. At 18-13 up, they should have put the Crusaders away.
Unfortunately for the local fans at Eden Park, the Blues struggled to maintain their physical effort as the game moved into the final quarter. By contrast, the Crusaders showed greater physicality and accuracy at the breakdowns, and made better decisions with ball in hand.
In the 62nd minute, centre Kieran Fonotia broke the Blues' line and set up replacement scrumhalf Andy Ellis for a momentum-shifting try. Richie Mo’unga added the extras to nudge the visitors into the lead at 20-18.
The Blues defence continued to fight, and did enjoy some success. They competed well at the lineout. They forced some telling turnovers at the breakdown. But the Crusaders just kept coming, and ultimately, the Blues defence relented.
There was a controversial incident in the 69th minute when Israel Dagg took a high ball and set up a counter-attack. TV replays showed that Ellis had prevented a Blues defender from getting to Dagg. Had referee Angus Gardner spotted the incident, the Blues would have had a penalty deep inside Crusaders territory.
As it was, the Crusaders surged upfield and got within inches of the Blues’ tryline. Piers Francis was penalised for a cleanout after the whistle, and Mo’unga stretched the Crusaders’ lead to five points with 10 minutes remaining on the stadium clock.
The Blues reacted poorly to the referee’s decision. They lost their composure in those final minutes, and gave away a series of penalties.
Mo’unga made them pay with a penalty goal in the 74th minute. The successful attempt took the visitors eight points clear of the hosts, and all but sealed the result.
The Blues had several opportunities to score at the death, but were denied by good Crusaders defence. They won a penalty after the final whistle, and Francis took the shot at goal to earn the hosts a losing bonus point.
The win is the Crusaders’ 10th of the 2016 season. They will go into the June break as the leaders of the Australasian group.
Blues – Tries: Ihaia West, George Moala. Conversion: West. Penalties: West (2), Piers Francis.
Crusaders – Tries: Nemani Nadolo, Andy Ellis. Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2). Penalties: Mo'unga (4).
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Billy Guyton, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Patrick Tuipoluto, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Hoani Matenga, 20 Jack Ram, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Male Sa'u, 23 Lolagi Visinia.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Jordan Taufua, 6 Matt Todd, 5 Luke Romano, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Joe Moody, 1 Codie Taylor.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Tim Boys, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 David Havili, 23 Marty McKenzie.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images