You can always tell when the Crusaders are in town. There is an atmosphere in the crowd that just doesn’t seem to be there for any other opponent. There was certainly a buzz at NIB as 14,259 fans watched the Crusaders team perform a Haka, answered in turn by the Western Forces Aboriginal war dance. The match got underway and the Force were aggressive from the start, fully aware of the size of the challenge ahead of them. It seemed almost inevitable that the first proper possession the Crusaders had for the night turned into the first Power Try of World Series Rugby as the moved the ball effortlessly from across the ground, around and through the Force defence.
Ominous sign of what could turn into a long night for the young force squad, but they fought back bravely and soon had a try of their own, albeit from much closer range. 9-5 early and the Force were well in the match, only just denied a second from a rolling maul. The rest of the first half was tight and intense, with the Crusaders looking a little more silky but no more desperate than determined Force outfit. A further try to the Saders and a rare (for World Series Rugby) penalty goal to the Force saw the teams head into the change of ends at 16 – 8.
The second half saw the Crusaders step up a gear against a tiring Force defence piling on a further 28 points to nil to run out 44-8 victors. It is not that the Force went to sleep defensively, the 4 Crusaders tries were scored across the length of the half rather than in one small burst. The Crusaders just had too much polish and skill when it matter. The Force had a few bright moments of their own, including a scintillating run down the right wing in the dying minutes by Rod Davies that should have been the Forces own Power Try, only for the video ref to rule that the ball had been lost forward in the grounding attempt. Both sides were putting in big defensive hits along with strong offensive runs, but where the Force fumbled, the Saders found the offload and that proved to be the difference between the sides on the night.
Jeremy Thrush came into the Force starting line-up for the first time and did exactly what you would expect a player of his calibre to do. Working hard all night and really leading the way for the forward pack. Chris Alcock also had a massive game, tackling all night and securing a couple of turn-overs at the ruck to boot. You wonder what could have been for Alcock if he wasn’t perpetually stuck behind a certain David Pocock. In the backs it was great to see Andrew Deegan dispel the myth that having the number 10 on your back precludes you from tackling. He had a fantastic defensive game tonight, never shirking the work when the big men ran at him, effecting more than one vital cover tackle when the Crusaders looked to have breached the line and even putting in a couple of dominant hits. But the best on ground for the Force was Rod Davies. He showed tonight that he is still as quick and elusive as he ever was with the ability to sniff out a line-break from a mile away. Plenty of Force players had decent runs through the game, but Davies was the only one who consistently managed to get in behind the Crusaders defensive line. A few kinder bounces and he could have scored a bag tonight, but such is rugby.
It is difficult to pick the stand-outs from the Crusaders as they are all playing so well. Mitch Drummond was lively while he was on, supporting well for a couple of tries. The entire forward pack, while not totally decimating the Force scrum, gained just enough advantage to give their backs the fast clean ball they needed. In the backs, Manasa Mataele was an absolute wrecking ball, gaining metres every time he ran and usually getting away a decent offload if he didn’t just score himself. But Man of the Match for me was Mitchell Hunt. He sparked the attack superbly and put the Force to the sword, converting all 6 Crusaders tries.
The Force will have learnt a lot from this match, they may have come an almost unimaginably long way so far, but there is still plenty of distance to go to become a truly world class side like the Crusaders clearly are. The main difference between the sides tonight was the execution of skills. The Force dropped too many balls while the Crusaders just didn’t. They dried up the opportunities for the Force while the Force presented the Crusaders with too much open loose play.
It is always special when the Crusaders come to town, and like so often happens, this time they are leaving with the win.
Power Tries: Drummond
Tries: Drummond, Hunt, Mataele, Tamanivalu, Faingaanuku
Cons: Hunt 6
Photo album credit: Delphy