To the Crusaders the spoils. But it was a hell of a battle on Anzac Day night in Christchurch, the runaway Super 14 leaders needing to call on all their powers of denial to scrape out a 26-22 bonus-point victory over the Blues.
Marc Hinton reports for RugbyHeaven NZ that it was a result, albeit one that was in doubt right until the final play of a fabulous match, that puts the winners in the Super 14 box seat and the vanquished somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
It was that kind of match. That kind of night. Fine lines, tight calls and the bounce of the ball. And at the end of a contest where the hosts dominated at the lineout, the visitors the scrum, and it was honours shared at the breakdown, it was always going to be about which side held the firmest under pressure.
In the end, both the rub of the green, and the coolness under the cosh, went in favour of the Crusaders who have now all but guaranteed top finishing spot for the playoffs that loom in a month’s time. It will be some sort of a finish that will catch them from here.
And we all know what it means when the Crusaders are at home in the post-season. Put it this way, they haven’t lost yet in a long history of playoff perseverence.
For the Blues it was a vast, vast improvement on the pathetic fare they served up their previous two outings. But one lousy point is not much reward for all that endeavour. And with just 26 points on the board and three matches left the Blues are all-but in the elimitation stakes. One stumble from here on in and they’re gone.
But can the Auks really have any complaint? At the end of a frustrating night, they’ll know they were out-thought, more than out-fought, in a stirring Super 14 contest. And at this stage of things that was enough to all but consign the boys from the big city to an inglorious end to the David Nucifora era.
Actually the Blues, who sprang a surprise by lining out with Nick Evans at fullback and Isa Nacea at first five, would not have been the unhappiest to go into the break trailing just 7-12 after the first 40 minutes of a fairly intense encounter.
Skipper Richie McCaw and hooker Corey Flynn scored the first-half tries for the Crusaders, helping them spring out to a 12-0 lead after 25 minutes, but Rudi Wulf replied with a seven-pointer to close the gap to within reaching distance by the end of the opening stanza.
The Crusaders lost in-form No 8 Mose Tuiali’i early to injury and on the balance of things would have been content to take any sort of a lead into the sheds. Both teams showed plenty, and spilled plenty, in an opening half more notable for its excitement than execution.
You also had to wonder about the wisdom of the Evans-Nacewa switch. In the opening skirmishes Nacewa’s tactical kicking was average and Evans’ territorial punting unimpressive. They appeared to settle into their roles over the run home, but by then was the damage done?
Anyway, here’s how it played out. In an electrifying, and contentious, second 40 both teams threw the kitchen sink at each other, with the Crusaders over the moon to hang on for a four tries to three victory that also earned them the bonus point.
Flynn, who had a high-profile match to say the least (mixing the sublime with the occassional bit of ridiculous), grabbed a second try five minutes into the second spell to answer Nick Williams’ early score that got the Blues into the lead, 14-12, just a couple of minutes into the renewal of skirmishes.
With both teams creating opportunities aplenty over the second spell, replacement hooker Ti’i Paulo made probably the most crucial (and talked-about) play of the game 14 minutes from the end.
With Flynn having been despatched to the sinbin for a second high hit and Evans having banged over the resultant penalty from 50m to close the Blues to within two, Paulo’s score — which should never have been — put the Crusaders back out to 26-17.
Replays later showed that Crusaders wing Sean Maitland had put a foot in touch before making the key inpass to McCaw who set the score up by making the final delivery to Paulo for a stunning seven-pointer.
But David Nucifora’s men were far from done in a splendid contest that pulsated right to the very end.
Perhaps, though, it was not meant to be for the Blues who are having one of those seasons.
Within a couple of minutes of Paulo’s score, Blues captain Troy Flavell looked to be over for a try that would have really put the cat among the pigeons.
But this time, as Flavell lunged with a meaty paw in the left corner, the try decision went to the TMO and it was ruled that Flavell’s hip had hit the line a fraction of a millisecond before he grounded.
Fair call. But it would be slim compensation to the Blues that this knife-edge call went against them when a clear foot in touch before Paulo’s try was not able to be referenced.
By this stage the Blues had finally got their attacking game into full flow — after about two months of trying — and the Crusaders spent most on the last 10 or 11 minutes hanging on by their fingertips.
Anthony Tuitavake, who had a stunning match, launched a brilliant attack 11 minutes from the end, running off the electrifying David Smith, and looked like he might have scored possibly the try of the season before the TMO again denied him on the line. Outrageously, the Crusaders were awarded a relieving free-kick, which was evidence alone that at least one of these ELVs is well wide of the mark.
Still, seven minutes from the end Smith, who really should have been given this chance much, much earlier, was over to get the Blues within striking distance. Justin Collins had made the break from a lineout snatch and replacement back Isaia Toeava set his wing up perfectly for another close call that finally went the Blues’ way.
The Blues had their chances over the closing stages, but their season was perhaps summed up when, less than two minutes from time, Evans kicked a touch-finder from a penalty dead to squander what would have been a royal chance for the desperate visitors to go for the match-winning try.
And that was that, the Crusaders having to survive one more Blue wave before they eventually forced the breakdown turnover to hang on for possibly the most hard-earned five points they’ve banked this season.
It’s hard to know whether the Blues would have had a chance of a short lineout try near the end, for they lost four on their own throw to a sharp Crusaders set piece, but it summed their season up to see them fall victim to their own shortcomings.
This was a vastly improved performance from the Blues, who monstered the Crusaders at scrum time and looked much more of an attacking theat behind the constant threat of Tuitavake in midfield, but in the end they took just one point from this splendid encounter from which they probably deserved more.
They weren’t out-fought on a night of high drama. But they were definitely out-thought. For the winners Leon MacDonald was magnificent at the back, Tim Bateman exciting at second five, McCaw magnificent in the loose and Flynn extravagant up front.
And that leaves the Blues, bonus point and all, with a near Mission Impossible, to salvage this troubled season of theirs. The Crusaders, meanwhile, charge on towards what is looking more and more like a seventh title.
Crusaders 26: Richie McCaw, Corey Flynn 2, Ti’i Paulo tries; Stephen Brett 3 cons.
Blues 22: Rudi Wulf, Nick Williams, David Smith tries; Nick Evans 2 cons, penTweet