After 40 minutes it seemed the Lions could do the impossible. Ahead at halftime, the men from Joburg showed they had not rolled into Christchurch just to get their bellies tickled by the mighty Crusaders’ swords.
Richard Knowler writes for The Times that in the first half they showed they meant business, forcing the Crusaders to make uncharacteristic unforced errors when they took the ball into contact and using their aggression and technique to rob them of the ball at the breakdown.
Two penalties to scrumhalf Chris Jonck nudged the Lions ahead 6-3 at halftime but hopes of causing an upset evaporated under a tide of red-and-black jerseys in the second spell. The problem for the Lions was that they just could not get their hands on the ball .
With left wing Rayno Benjamin yellow carded late in the first half by referee Matt Goddard, supposedly for impeding a player, the Crusaders turned around their three-point deficit to lead 14-6 with a try to right wing Sean Maitland and two penalties to flyhalf Hamish Gard.
“We just could not get possession in the second half,’’ Lions coach Eugene Eloff lamented. “That was the difference between the two teams, we had to keep defending .’’
If ever the Lions were to have a chance of causing an upset, it was yesterday.
Despite already being without injured fullback Leon MacDonald and flyhalf Dan Carter — who seriously sprained an ankle against the Hurricanes a fortnight ago and will not be sighted again until late in the tournament — Crusaders coach Robbie Deans rested a clutch of first-string players, including skipper Richie McCaw.
To top it off Deans suspended wing Kade Poki and reserve scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i for missing training, leaving him with just two backs in his reserves. It was a far from settled line-up than ran out against the Lions and Deans looked to have paid the price as the Lions pounced on a host of unforced errors.
One of the Lions’ best was flanker Joe van Niekerk, while his tight forwards also impressed with their handling and ability to offload close to the rucks. The Lions made several breakouts in the first half and with a pinch more luck could have scored.
Benjamin went close when he chased a kick but was beaten to the ball by Caleb Ralph and earlier Jonck made a searing 50m break from a scrum but could not beat fullback Scott Hamilton.
“We created all the play and I thought in the first half we played good rugby. It was a pity we didn’t have any tries to show for that,’’ Eloff said. “But when they started to score their tries we started to play too much like individuals and lost our composure. It is typical of an inexperienced side. But I think for a while we surprised a lot of people.’’
Sensing the Lions were fading after long periods defending, the Crusaders looked to make the most of their superior fitness and when scrumhalf Andy Ellis spectacularly lunged over a ruck for his try in the final quarter they brought up the bonus point.
There were concerns for the Lions that Justin St Jerry had been seriously hurt in a nasty collision with Kieran Read, but Eloff later said it was not serious.
Crusaders 31 — Tries: Sean Maitland, Ti’i Paulo, Caleb Ralph, Andy Ellis. Conversion: Hamish Gard. Penalties: Gard (3).
Lions 6 — Penalties: Chris Jonck (2).Tweet