The Crusaders won a typically punishing war of attrition 20-13 over their old Super 14 rivals the Hurricanes in Wellington, but may have lost their world-class first five Dan Carter in the process.
Marc Hinton of RugbyHeaven writes that it was a colossal physical confrontation between two well-matched sides, and after conceding two first-half tries and a 17-3 lead to their visitors, the Hurricanes hit back splendidly in a fabulous second 40 that threatened to hand them a surprise victory.
The Canes did grab a valuable bonus point for finishing within seven points, and at one stage, when Crusaders No 8 Mose Tuiali’i was sinbinned with still a dozen minutes left and Andrew Hore crossed for a try immediately to get the Canes back within striking distance, it looked as though the runaway competition leaders could be hauled in.
Even more so when just beforehand that brilliant five-eighth Carter had been forced to limp off the field with what looked a badly injured ankle.
However that was when the Crusaders really showed their mettle, the Red and Blacks digging in for the real fight and surviving the rest of Tuiali’i's absence unscathed, and then hanging in till the finish to grab another four points on the competition table. The victory took their lead, for the time being, to a monumental 12 points.
But at what cost did the win come for the Crusaders? Carter’s injury looked bad, and he had to be assisted off the park at the finish. A team spokesman later confirmed the All Black star had gone for scans on the injured ankle, and that no prognosis on the extent of the injury would be available until Saturday.
The bye comes next week at the right time for the six-time champions, but if Carter’s out for any length of time and Stephen Brett still a couple of weeks away at best, some shuffling of the resources is going to be needed.
It was a typically efficient first 40 minutes from the Crusaders, Robbie Deans’ brilliantly well-drilled side scoring two tries and easing to a 17-3 lead that was a chilling reminder to the Hurricanes about the requirements of the top end of this competition.
It wasn’t that the Canes were blatantly outplayed, or shown up for any glaring deficiencies, it was just that the Crusaders once again demonstrated palpably that they’re masters of collecting points whenever they’re there or thereabouts, and vice-versa whenever they find themselves under the gun.
Typically, the Crusaders bookended the opening stanza with tries, starting and finishing well which, as we know, is the hallmark of a quality side.
Hooker Corey Flynn had the first touchdown, and a 7-0 lead, inside two minutes, the Crusaders forcing a turnover, then establishing pressure via field position that saw Flynn able to gather and cross when the ball was kicked out of a ruck handy to the line.
And then, after a competitive middle stanza where both sides had their opportunities, but only a Carter penalty was added to the official tally, the Crusaders finished with a second try, to second-rower Ali Williams six minutes from the break.
A couple of the form Crusaders had set up the opportunity, Casey Laulala – who had a storming first 40 – and Tuiali’i featuring as the Red and Blacks attacked with width. When Tuiali’i elected to put in a chip kick, it looked promising with just Rodney So’oialo back in cover for the Canes. And when that grubber was executed perfectly, the ball sitting up on a plate for Williams, it was a masterpiece.
But how it changed after the break, with the Hurricanes surviving the opening skirmishes and then establishing some real momentum.
For just the second time this year, the Canes made the Crusdaders look distinctly mortal.
But despite a much improved half of football, where the home side was able to add ball-retention to its physical commitment, the Canes weren’t quite able to get up over this very good Crusaders outfit.
They will rue a poor goalkicking display from Jimmy Gopperth, and his late penalty miss, where he had a handy shot nine minutes out that would have closed the gap to just four, was particularly costly.
Still, the Canes will take plenty out of the match, particularly from that big second 40. Hore, Jason Eaton and Jerry Collins put in the yards up front, while livewire fullback Cory Jane was the most likely of the home backs. The much anticipated halfback duel probably finished honours even.
For the Crusaders, Laulala had a strong first 40 (and would have shaded Conrad Smith in his head-to-head), but wasn’t noticed thereafter, while the wildly under-rated Scott Hamilton also had a useful match with ball in hand. Fullback Leon MacDonald also did extremely well to survive an early knock and guts out the remainder of the match.
Up front the Crusaders scrum threatened to dominate early, but found more opposition as the game wore on. Tuiali’i and Richie McCaw had their moments, Brad Thorn and Williams too, but they, like their team-mates, found things tough going for the last part of this match.
“That second half never seemed to stop and we managed to hang in there and get away with a win,” said McCaw afterwards.
The Crusaders skipper conceded the bye was now welcome for his battered side, even if they have tucked a perfect seven wins from seven under their belt.
“A few of the guys have played a fair amount the first seven rounds and I guess the bye comes at the right time. But at the halfway stage of the season we’re pretty happy with where we’re at.”
Added Canes skipper Rodney So’oialo: “The Crusaders didn’t disappoint us at all. They’re the best team out there and certainly proved it tonight.”
We now await the medical verdict on Carter’s injury. To be fair, the Crusaders now have quite a comfort zone up in the rare air at the top of the table.
Hurricanes 13: Andrew Hore try; Jimmy Gopperth pen, con; Piri Weepu pen.
Crusaders 20: Corey Flynn, Ali Williams tries; Dan Carter 2 cons, 2 pens.Tweet