The Crusaders won 24-22 in Auckland on Saturday to record their ninth straight victory against the Blues. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Vodacom Super Rugby champions will breathe a collective sigh of relief. In the end, it was thanks to two late missed goal-kicks by Blues replacement Harry Plummer that the Crusaders emerged from this contest with a valuable win.
The Blues fired in patches. Their scrum troubled the Crusaders in the early stages of the second stanza, while their attack posed a greater threat when Sonny Bill Williams joined Ma’a Nonu in the midfield later in the game.
Ultimately, the hosts were let down by their own inconsistency on attack and defence. They will lament their wayward goal-kicking at the death.
The Crusaders absorbed a lot of pressure in the first half. When the visitors had the chance to strike, however, they made their opportunities count.
The Blues failed to field a misdirected cross-kick by the Crusaders. Manasa Mataele pounced to dot the ball down and earn his side the lead.
The Crusaders used their lineout maul to telling effect. Blues flank Tom Robinson was yellow-carded for infringing close to the line, and referee Nick Briant decided to award a penalty try.
The Crusaders went to the break with a 12-3 lead, and looked to be on course for a comfortable win.
The Blues hit back in the early stages of the second half. No 8 Akira Ioane, so powerful in the opening exchanges, finished off a searing counter-attack by his side.
Replacement Ofa Tu’ungafasi powered over from close range to propel his side into the lead with less than 30 minutes remaining.
But the Crusaders weren’t done yet. Mataele’s second try, or more specifically the buildup from the scrum, was the play of the game.
George Bridge came off his wing to take a short pass and break the line. The Blues tracked back to close Bridge down, but the player swerved to avoid contact and then deliver a long spiralling pass to Mataele on the right wing. The finish locked up the scores at 17-17.
The Blues began to tire as the end of the game approached. The Crusaders scrum enjoyed a second wind, and earned the visitors a second penalty try in the 64th minute.
There was another twist in the plot when Ben Funnell was shown a yellow card for a cynical infringement in the 67th minute. The Crusaders contested fiercely at the breakdown over the course of the game, and the referee eventually ran out of patience when Funnel impeded.
The Blues turned down a kickable penalty in favour of a lineout close to the line. Augustine Pulu scored from the subsequent play, but Harry Plummer missed a conversion in front of the posts. That mistake cost the Blues a chance to level the scores.
Plummer enjoyed a chance to win the game for his side in the 78th minute. The Crusaders impeded and the decision was taken by the Blues to shoot for goal from 45m out.
Plummer’s attempt drifted wide, though, and the Blues slumped to yet another defeat to their rivals from the south island.
Blues – Tries: Akira Ioane, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Augustine Pulu. Conversions: Otere Black, Harry Plummer. Penalty: Black.
Crusaders – Tries: Manasa Mataele (2), penalty try (2).
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Ma’a Nonu, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Otere Black, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Matt Matich, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Manasa Mataele, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Will Jordan.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images