The Crusaders produced a clinical performance in the wet to beat the Waratahs 29-10 in Christchurch on Friday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
A loss to the Highlanders last weekend ended the Saders' eight-match winning run, but they bounced back well against a Waratahs team that had come into this match on the back of four successive victories. However, those had been achieved against Australian and South African opposition and, as expected, they were given a reality check by one of New Zealand's top franchises.
The Crusaders' win was even more impressive considering that heavy rain fell throughout the first half. They did well to keep handling errors to a minimum, adopted a pragmatic game plan that saw them kick 49 times out of hand (according to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats) and took the try-scoring chances that came their way.
The only negative from the Saders' perspective was that they conceded a 65th-minute try that cost them a bonus point. They are now just four points ahead of the Chiefs, who play the Rebels on Saturday, at the top of the New Zealand conference.
It took the Crusaders less than three minutes to open the scoring in this match when a seven-phase attack resulted in a try to Johnny McNicholl in the right-hand corner. It didn't come without controversy, though, as replays suggested the winger's right arm had gone into touch before he grounded the ball. However, the TMO didn't see it that way and Richie Mo'unga slotted the conversion.
Mo'unga played a big part in the hosts' next try with his pin-point cross-kick finding McNicholl, whose offload in the tackle put Dagg over to make it 12-0.
McNicholl thought he'd grabbed his second try after regathering Dagg's up-and-under, only for Matt Todd to be penalised for going offside. However, Mo'unga did extend his side's lead with his first penalty goal of the night.
The Tahs hit back in the 26th minute when Israel Folau went around and then through the Crusaders defence. His one-handed offload in the tackle came off McNicholl's hand and was kicked ahead by Rob Horne, who won the race to the ball to score his side's first try.
Mo'unga was unsuccessful with his second penalty attempt, but more than made amends late in the half when he scythed through the defence to score his side's third try that made it 22-5.
The Tahs had a good third quarter, but their most promising attack ended with Folau knocking on close to the Saders' tryline. The hosts then sent the ball wide from inside their deadball area, with McNicholl breaking away and putting in a grubber. The visitors were forced to carry the ball behind their tryline and while they kept the Crusaders out from the resultant 5m scrum, Jordan Taufua went over next to the uprights soon after the next one to extend the lead to 24.
The Tahs, though, didn't capitulate. Former Crusaders wing Zac Guildford scored their second try shortly after coming off the bench, which took the bonus point away from the hosts, and only committed Crusaders defence prevented the visitors from getting a third.
The hosts pushed hard for a bonus-point try, opting to keep the ball alive after the full-time hooter had sounded, but a knock-on in the 84th minute meant they had to be satisfied with the four log points.
Crusaders – Tries: Johnny McNicholl, Israel Dagg, Richie Mo'unga, Jordan Taufua. Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (3). Penalty: Mo'unga.
Waratahs – Tries: Rob Horne, Zac Guildford.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mika Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Tim Boys, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 David Havili, 23 Marty McKenzie.
Waratahs – 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dean Mumm, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Tom Robertson, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Paddy Ryan.
Subs: 16 Angus Ta’avao, 17 Hugh Roach, 18 Jeremy Tilse, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Wycliff Palu, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Matt Carraro, 23 Zac Guildford.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images