Reason: Why Andy's so handy for Crusaders

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 30/07/2014
Andy Ellis and Willi Heinz
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IN TANDEM: Andy Ellis, left, has played in rotation with Willi Heinz in the Crusaders' No 9 jersey.

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OPINION: Andy Ellis is not the world's best number nine. He is not even rated in the top three half backs in his own country by the All Blacks coach. But the 30-year-old scrapper may well be the most influential player on the pitch in the Super 15 final.

Ellis is a very good gauge of how the Crusaders are travelling. When Ellis is going well, the Cantabs are going well. When Ellis is searching for his game and his energy, the Crusaders often become stilted, predictable and unsure of themselves.

The little big man - do all half backs have a Napoleon complex? - was superb in the semifinal against the Sharks. The Crusaders deliberately shortened their kicking game to put the Sharks backfield under constant pressure and Ellis was at the forefront of the tactic.

His box kicks made the Sharks forwards turn, they put the defenders under pressure and they were repeatedly retrieved by his own side. There are days when Ellis's kicking drops off the radar, but on Saturday evening he was lethally accurate.

The respective kicking games proved the difference. The Sharks were unbelievably bad. The selection of Patrick Lambie at first five, after time out, was a rare mistake from Jake White. Lambie kicked an early penalty dead, and his uncertainty seeped through the rest of the team.

The Crusaders' opening try came off an execrable kick by Paul Jordaan, who compounded the error by missing a first-up tackle on Kieran Read. The Crusaders were excellent, and Ellis endorsed his performance by setting up the second try with some smart trickery, but the Sharks were woeful. Many of their mistakes were unforced errors, as they say in tennis.

Perhaps the most telling comment on the match came from Bismarck du Plessis, who was fed the ultimate leading question.

"This Crusaders team, they're something special at times, aren't they?"

Du Plessis is a generous man. He is an honest man.

He answered: "I think it's going to be a good final next week but, like I said earlier, extremely disappointed in our own performance."

The South African does not rate this Crusaders team as special. Maybe they will be special at the weekend - improved selection has instigated a good run of form - but the Crusaders don't generate the fear factor that they once did. They are too inconsistent for that and inconsistency gives the opposition hope.

IT IS a very hard final to pick, the bookies making the Tahs marginal favourites. But the only team that has approached "special" this season is the Waratahs and they have home advantage, even if the strange change of stadium would seem to dilute that advantage. But they lack the Crusaders' big game experience.

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The men from New Zealand have six men who have won a World Cup final, plus Dan Carter. But if the Tahs want to be positive, they will point out that the Crusaders also have a team of players who have lost four semi-finals and a final in the previous five years.

In Europe that would be seen as a pattern.

The last time the Crusaders were successful in the knockout stages was against the Waratahs in the 2008 final. Each team still has five men who played in that final, a game that the Crusaders won 20-12. But crucially they had home advantage.

You suspect the game at the weekend will be extremely tight unless the Tahs freeze. Much has rightly been made of the Waratahs' ability to strike from anywhere - fewest kicks from hand, most carries, metres, offloads, passes and clean breaks - but not enough is made of their defence.

They conceded an average of 16 points a game in the regular season, the fewest of any team. After the semifinal Ben Mowen, the Brumbies skipper, said: "They defended really well, they dismantled our maul which has been a real strength of ours and they are obviously the best defensive side in the competition for a reason."

In American football parlance, the Waratahs' two opening tries against the Brumbies were scored by the defensive unit, through an interception and a steal. Nathan Grey, the man who turned a Lions series by breaking Richard Hill's jaw, has brought a real hardness to the Tahs.

Every player works their socks off. Halfback Nick Phipps may be a very dodgy passer off his left hand, but he is surely the best cover tackler in the competition. At the end of the semifinal Bernard Foley made a try-saving tackle in his own 22 and, in the same sequence of play, scored at the other end.

But the Crusaders will have identified the weak spots. They will put pressure on Phipps. They will try to rattle Kurtley Beale, who had his flaky moments in the semi. Sam Whitelock will go after a lineout that had only two targets in the semi.

The Tahs scrum might also suffer if Craig Joubert allows Wyatt Crockett to angle in on the tighthead, the key to a successful Crusaders shove. The Crusaders also had a lot of success with the inside ball against the Sharks, but the Tahs are the best in the comp at defending the combination of width and inside balls. The Crusaders will be wary of turning the ball over on a big hit.

The Tahs players may not be used to winning much, but the same is not true of the coaching staff of Grey, Daryl Gibson (aka mole) and Michael Cheika. The head coach won a Heineken Cup with Leinster, a competition that in terms of crowds and money (and therefore pressure) dwarfs the Super 15.

Pull up a chair on Saturday night. This one could be an epic.

- Stuff

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