The Canterbury Crusaders, of no fixed abode, showed last weekend what they’re really made of and you’d have to say it’s not too much different from previous years.
They’re perennial Super Rugby finalists and in recent weeks have been performing a bit like my new Triumph Bonneville — firing on all cyclinders!
Their win against the Stormers was one of the best matches I’ve seen this Super season. Not because of too many flashy plays, but it reminded me of the Wallabies’ win over the All Blacks in the 2003 RWC semi-final.
What they did then was squeeze the life out of the ABs, and that’s what the Crusaders did on Saturday night to our Kaapstad friends.
With a near Test match-quality forward pack, the Crusaders gave the Stormers hell in the scrums, at the breakdown and in defence. At the end, the Stormers were broken men — defeated and demoralised after a humiliating loss.
They couldn’t even get over the gain line. And this was a side that had won 67 per cent of possession in the first half and 55 per cent overall, and made 75 tackles to the Crusaders’ 92. All against a well-travelled and homeless Kiwi outfit.
I thought the Crusaders would be feeling the cumulative effects of all this travel but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I think there’s a simple answer to that: they’ve probably just got used to it and it’s become the norm.
But let’s not overplay this. After their match against the Reds in Week 15 they had a bye, played the Blues in Timaru, the Hurricanes in Wellington and the Sharks in Nelson. That’s hardly travelling, they’re all just down the bloody road!
What the Crusaders have proved is that they’re mentally very tough and will be a huge challenge for their opponents this weekend. In fact, I think they’ll be too experienced and hardened for this young Reds team.
Monty used to call it ‘grip’ in a battle context. The Crusaders have the ability to ‘grip’ a match and tightly control its direction. Like the Reds, the Crusaders have the smarts and the players to tactically change from Plan A to Plan B if required.
Where are the Crusaders’ weaknesses? There certainly weren’t any exposed last weekend. They’re a well-balanced unit with grunt in the tight five and an ability to dominate the breakdown. They are the best counter-rucking team in the competition.
They’ve also the most capable backline general in the world, a midfield to-die-for and speed in the three-quarters (counter-attacking especially). Crikey, what else would you need? Oh yeah, Sir Richie, the Crusaders’ knight in white satin….
Many of these guys have played in Super Rugby finals before and know what’s expected. As we’ve neared the business end of the comp they’ve commensurately raised their intensity level.
Where are the Reds’ weaknesses? There’s been some line-out fragility of late, the goal-kicking is inconsistent and the creaky scrum will be contesting against the strongest provincial Super Rugby eight in the world.
That’s not forgetting a defensive weakness at 10 (or is that 15?), although that’s sometimes turned into a strength on the counter.
The Reds don’t have players like an Owen Franks, a Brad Thorn, a Richie McCaw, a Dan Carter or an SBW — all world-class.
I think you’d say Sanchez Genia and Digby Ioane are in that group, with Quade Cooper likely to take the mantle off Carter in due course, but none of the forwards are quite of that quality. If you were picking a composite side right now, how many Reds would be in it?
Ah, you say, but we beat them in Round 15. The Reds had a terrific win over the Cru in THE best match of the year (well, next to the Round 18 Sharks v. Bulls). Didn’t that give us some confidence?
But there are six changes from that game, which effectively weaken the Reds (losing Slipper, Morahan and Lucas) and strengthen the Crusaders (gaining Ellis, if he plays, Sam Whitelock and Maitland). In my view, the Crusaders are stronger and in better form than in Round 15.
I’m not down-selling the Reds here. They’ve been terrific all year and as a season ticketholder I’ve invested in their success. They’re creative, got pizazz and won’t die wondering on Saturday night. Expect the unexpected!
But: the forwards will be under the pump at the set piece and on the deck and I’m not sure they’ll have the answer to the questions posed. I’ve liked Ben Daley‘s go-forward and Kev Horwill’s commitment. The Beau Robinson and Radike Samo stories are inspiring for all the right reasons. In fact, the team is really greater than the sum of its parts.
Link MacKenzie and his young charges have been fantastic for Australian rugby this year — given it a huge boost in the arm and the future promises big things (even Timmy Horan’s Reds dynasty could be a goer).
The replacement turf, due to the flooding, held up remarkably well at Suncorp Stadium last weekend despite the potential for disaster.
Floods there might have been, but on Saturday night I fear the Reds are going to meet their Waterloo. Perhaps they could phone a friend?
Lance says: ‘Crusaders by 12′.