Israel Dagg © Reuters Images
They had to survive a gutsy Western Force fightback that was helped by their own bizarre change of tactics but in the end the Crusaders got back on the horse and were full value for their 42-30 Super Rugby win in Perth on Saturday.
The Crusaders scored five tries to two to pick up the bonus point win that keeps them in touch with the Blues on the New Zealand conference log table while at the same time sustaining pressure on the other teams competing for ascendancy in the battle for a top two position on the overall log that will ensure home ground advantage in a semifinal.
The win ensured that the Crusaders regained what confidence that might have been lost in their unexpected defeat to the Highlanders in Nelson the previous week. At the same time, it was also the perfect buildup to next week’s big clash with the Stormers in Cape Town as the Crusaders had their nerve well and truly tested in front of a fanatical full house crowd.
You wouldn’t have thought it would be close in the first 20 minutes, with the Crusaders taking the game from the scruff almost from the kick-off and dominating the first quarter to the extent that it looked as though they might notch their bonus point try before half time.
However, the Force fought back through penalties and the closeness on the scoreboard seemed to inhibit the Crusaders, who, after throwing caution to the wind in the first minutes, went into their shell and played far more conservatively for the rest of the half.
Perhaps that was partly due to the realisation of what could happen when a long range attack breaks down. With the Crusaders leading 15-9 the Kiwi team launched a great attack that looked like realising a 95-metre try, but the move broke down on the right touchline deep in Force territory when it sprung free from a Crusaders hand into the hands of Force wing David Smith.
Smith brought James O’Connor into play, and then moved inside to link up with flyhalf Nathan Charles who ran the ball to the right for Cameron Shepherd to round off one of the finest tries of not only this season but any season in Super Rugby.
Suddenly after being well ahead the Crusaders were trailing 16-15. That was after a start which had seen them tear holes in the Force defence almost every time they had possession, big Sonny Bill Williams again being hugely influential as they struck repeatedly from a long way out.
Fullback Israel Dagg scored both early tries, the first one after he himself had fielded a kick before passing to Zac Guilford who made space for Sean Maitland to surge down the right flank before transferring inside to Dagg to round off a superb counter-attack.
Then it was a well timed pass from Williams that put Dagg in for a great try that made it 12-0 to the Crusaders after just eight minutes.
The Crusaders went back into the lead after the Shepherd try almost immediately. The Shepherd try was timed at 29 minutes and it was in the 31st minute that Dagg came up into the inside centre channel after a lineout to surge through and draw the one remaining defender before transferring inside to Williams for a 60-metre try.
A Force penalty made it 22-19 at half time, and the Force moved into a position where they could have wrapped up the match in the third quarter as they scored 11 points in the 10 minutes that Crusaders captain Richie McCaw was off the field after being binned for a repeated infringement.
Even before McCaw was sent off the Crusaders had become a lot more conservative than they had been at the start, and the watching players from other nations might take some hope from that as it could suggest the weakness under scoreboard pressure that many are seeing as the main hope of the All Black opponents in the forthcoming World Cup.
However if Kiwis needed evidence that their men can play under pressure and come from behind late in the game it was provided in the last 10 minutes as they scored two tries to wrap up the victory after they were still behind by two points at the arrival of the 70th minute. The first was sparked by a turn-over scrum which saw McCaw burst off the side and Williams doing most of the running before Corey Flynn eventually burrowed his way through.
And scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i made sure of the win by barreling over off a loose scrum on the Force line after a sustained build-up that had endured almost from the kick-off after the Flynn try.
Force 30- Tries: Cameron Sherpard (2); Conversion: Wilie Ripia; Penalty: James O'Connor (5), W.Ripia
Crusaders 42 - Tries: Israel Dagg(2), Sonny Bill Williams, Kahn Fortuali'i; Conversion: Mathew Berquist (4); Penalty: Mathew Berquist (3)