The Crusaders retained their position at the top of the New Zealand conference with a 30-7 win against the Force in Christchurch. BRENTON CHELIN reports.
The match pitted third against fourth, but it was hardly a classic encounter and one that was dominated by the boot. Reminiscent of the Sharks and Brumbies match from a couple of weeks back, there was endless aerial ping-pong with 77 kicks from hand over the 80 minutes.
The Crusaders took a 16-0 lead into the break, which may well have been a lot more had they converted their chances. Colin Slade opened the scoring with two penalties in a frenetic opening 20 minutes.
In a first half sorely lacking in quality, it took a moment of inspiration from Israel Dagg to get the Crusaders out of first gear. Receiving the ball on the right, he stepped, fended off an oncoming defender and offloaded for Johnny McNicholl to go over for the Crusaders' first try.
McNicholl might have had a second a couple minutes later were it not for an off-the-ball infringement in the build-up. South African and Australian coaches would have been pleased to see Tim Perry get penalised for preventing Sias Ebersohn from joining the defensive line.
The Crusaders, who didn't miss a tackle during the first half, then added three points after the hooter as they went in with a comfortable lead.
It was the Force, though, who came out inspired for the second half, picking up a deserved try through Dane Haylett-Petty. They were well in the game at that point, but a lack of variation in their attacking play meant they were unable to break down the wall of red.
The Crusaders then took it upon themselves to grind out the victory, claiming two penalty tries in the closing 10 minutes, and the scoreline perhaps was a bit harsh on the valiant Force.
It may not have been pretty, but the Crusaders moved to within striking distance at the top of the table, should the Sharks slip up against the Stormers in Durban.
Crusaders – Tries: Johnny McNicholl, penalty try (2). Conversions: Colin Slade (3). Penalties: Slade (3).
Force – Try: Dane Haylett-Petty. Conversion: Sias Ebersohn.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Tom Taylor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Tim Perry.
Subs: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Adam Whitelock, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Force – 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Patrick Dellit, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Angus Cottrell, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Subs: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Ryan Hodson, 21 Justin Turner, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images