After dominating the opening 30 minutes then going completely off the boil, the Crusaders have snatched a late victory from a committed Force team in an absolute cliffhanger at NIB Stadium.
The opening try wasn’t long in coming, as a strong Crusaders scrum gave No. 8 Kieran Read the opportunity to range wide and set up the first of several rucks from which halfback Mitchell Drummond eventually went over. Richie Mo’unga couldn’t convert from near touch.
Two penalties from Force flyhalf Peter Grant and one from his opposite Mo’unga brought the Force back to 6-8 before a Junior Rasolea intercept almost yielded the Force their first try, but they were denied by an errant transfer and some scrambling Crusaders defence.
By the 20 minute mark the Crusaders looked to be getting on top but the Force kept making their tackles, and with flankers Matt Hodgson and Angus Cottrell each grabbing a crucial turnover, were proving a hard nut to crack.
Crusaders wing Johnny McNicholl broke the impasse after a series of coast-to-coast attacks resulted in a defensive misalignment that hooker Codie Taylor exploited for the try-assist. Mo’unga was again off-target but at 13-6 one sensed the Force were just hanging in there. The final ten minutes of the half saw the Crusaders continuing to dominate possession and territory but still unable to break down the Force’s defence.
With an 11-0 lineout count and resultant field position advantage, and a missed tackle count of 0-12, the Crusaders should have been much further in front and one suspects that if they didn’t already know it then Todd Blackadder would have left them in no doubt after his half time team talk.
Half time: Crusaders 13-6 Force
A careless high tackle by Crusaders lock Sam Whitelock on No. 8 Ben McCalman allowed Grant to close the gap to 9-13 from long range early in the second half. A sequence of pick-and-gos then earned the Force a five metre scrum. Force inside centre Rasolea arguably blew the try-scoring opportunity but the Force were under penalty advantage and Grant duly pulled them back to within a point with 30 minutes left.
The starting XV having failed to produce the desired result, Blackadder went to his bench but with Hodgson ruling the breakdown and the Crusaders making basic errors, an upset of 2013 proportion seemed very much on the cards going into the final quarter.
A Ben Volavola dropped ball was seized upon by Rasolea who fed Hodgson (who else?), whose try assist set Ryan Louwrens over the chalk. Grant converted and suddenly the Force were in front 19-13.
The Crusaders then turned in an awful fifteen minutes during which multiple scoring opportunities were squandered through poor option taking and handling. During this period the Force maintained their disciplined swarming defence and to be fair that forced (and exploited) many of the Crusaders errors.
A well-weighted Mo’unga cross kick looked to have gifted McNicholl a match-sealing try but he fumbled it, which rather summed up the night for the Crusaders.
A late scrum penalty gave the Crusaders a last chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and flanker Jordan Taufua powered over to present Mo’unga with an easy shot for a 20-19 lead. From the kickoff the Force infringed and Mo’unga sent the ball into the stands to complete an unconvincing victory.
Crusaders 20 (Mitchell Drummond, Johnny McNicholl, Jordan Taufua tries; Richie Mo’unga con, pen) def Western Force 19 (Ryan Louwrens try; Peter Grant con, 4 pen).