The brave crusade is over after Todd Blackadder’s side squandered a good lead and allowed the Bulls to charge back to claim hosting right’s for next weekend’s Super 14 final in Pretoria.
Up 20-7 after 24 minutes the Crusaders’ normally water-tight defence got ragged in a costly second quarter that leaked 20 points.
Duncan Johnstone writes for Stuff.co.nz that the Bulls finished with three tries but it was Morne Steyn’s unerring boot that was eventually the difference landing four trademark dropped goals in a deserved 36-23 semifinal victory.
Not that the Crusaders didn’t contribute to this open spectacle which was in stark contrast to the slog the day before where the Chiefs edged the Hurricanes in the other semifinal and must now travel to Loftus Versfeld to try to halt the resilient Bulls.
The absorbing match was marked by some massive hits, two teams throwing everything at each other.
A strong forward effort that made the Bulls look decidedly average at times with accuracy in the set pieces and energy at the breakdowns wasn’t enough.
The Crusaders, who walked a tightrope to the playoffs, eventually tumbled as they were plagued by some poor kicking that allowed the home side to dominate territory. With that came the inevitable points.
So the Bulls advance to their second final – their first at home – and the Crusaders lose their second of 11 semifinals with a repeat of their 2007 playoff in Pretoria.
Brad Thorn was a tower of strength and lock Isaac Ross, prop Wyatt Crockett and loose forward Kieran Read toiled at his side in an effective pick and go game.
Adam Whitelock was lively down the left wing, Leon MacDonald overcame a head knock in the opening minute to contribute plenty and the Crusaders managed to make ground through the Bulls’ makeshift midfield.
But after their strong start they just couldn’t get things going again as their accuracy deserted them and the Bulls made them pay with athletic No 8 Pierre Spies a standout in a stunning comeback.
The Crusaders made a strong start and Thomas Waldrom should have scored in the third minute but dropped a pass with the line begging after Adam Whitelock made ground down the left touchline.
The Crusaders held their ground though and earned a penalty from the resulting scrum with Stephen Brett stepping up to goal.
Uncharacteristically sloppy defence off the edge of a ruck saw Habana slice through to the posts from 22m out.
The Crusaders hit back from the kickoff with a series of rucks eventually allowing an overlap for Whitelock to squeeze over in the corner. MacDonald converted and added a penalty soon after as the Bulls were under pressure in front of their posts.
MacDonald hoisted a bomb to the Bulls’ posts and Keiran Read got up to beat Kirchner and then thumped the ball down for the try. In the blink of an eye the Crusaders were out to 20-7.
The Bulls finally put some phases together and found a metre of room down the left touch that was all Akona Ndungane needed to dart away for the touchdown.
The Bulls swept back on to attack and Waldrom was yellow carded as his defence got too desperate.
The Bulls played the field position and Steyn stepped up with two dropped goals and the Crusaders’ lead had totally evaporated.
Ad Feedback The Crusaders paid for some adventure when Spies gathered in a Jared Payne chip kick and sprinted 60m for the try on the halftime whistle. The Bulls had gathered 20 points in 16 minutes to lead 27-20 at the break.
Play see-sawed from there with neither side able to capitalise on their chances until Steyn got the Bulls clear with a penalty after 62 minutes.
Then he stepped up with the South African sledge-hammer, landing two more dropped goals.
Andy Ellis added one of his own for the Crusaders but it was never enough.
Bulls 36: Bryan Habana, Akona Ndungane, Pierre Spies tries; Morne Steyn 3 con, pen, 4 dg.
Crusaders 23: Adam Whitelock, Kieran Read tries; Leon MacDonald 2 con, pen; Stephen Brett pen; Andy Ellis dropped goal.Tweet