Happy Mark Hammett spoils Crusaders' march
It was the homecoming party that nobody among the Crusaders had planned for "Hammer".
OPINION: This was supposed to be a match in which the Crusaders' machine groaned back on to its tracks as it rumbled towards a finals spot.
Then Mark "Hammer" Hammett, a Christchurch born-and-raised former rake who represented the Crusaders, Canterbury and All Blacks and is an ex-Crusaders assistant coach, rushed in with his Hurricanes to play the role of the visiting vandals.
The Hurricanes ended the Crusaders' five-match unbeaten streak at their home ground, ruined any chance they had of poking the Chiefs off the top of the Kiwi conference log and returned to Wellington with four vital competition points.
No wonder a satisfied look creased Hammett's face as he fronted for post-match interviews in the icy-cold outside the changing sheds.
It was all a far cry from when the two sides met a year ago. On that night, June 18 to be precise, the Crusaders produced a reasonable display to win 16-9 and nail the top New Zealand conference place.
Hammett's lot, meanwhile, were a disjointed rabble after finishing ninth and winning just five matches.
Heading out the back door were Andrew Hore and Ma'a Nonu because their relationship with Hammett had disintegrated so much their boss no longer wanted the two All Blacks. With internationals Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden and Hosea Gear later bailing, the likelihood of Hammett getting his team near the playoffs this season appeared remote. Now it is a reality.
Even with the Crusaders zapping them 42-14 in Wellington in April the Hurricanes arrived in Christchurch sensing they could create some mayhem and later Conrad Smith confirmed they had suspected the June test window would be the perfect time to blitz the All Blacks-laden Crusaders.
While 10 of their players traded their red and black garb for national colours Hammett was quietly building his men's confidence in Wellington.
The Hurricanes con-tributed just four men to the All Blacks and only Smith played every match. They executed their ambush well.
The Crusaders' unexpected decline went something like this: despite pulling the Hurricanes scrum at the seams and their hooker Dane Coles spraying three lineout throws, the visitors savaged their opponents in the rucks, rushed quickly out of the defensive blocks and even earned some luck from referee Bryce Lawrence when he missed Julian Savea running interference ahead of Smith's first try.
The Crusaders scored a cracking individual try through wing Zac Guildford – it was a 65m screamer – but never gained momentum because of their repeated errors, lateral running and silly penalties.
Now the Crusaders have reversed their way back into the pack which is tangled in an unseemly scrap for the three wildcard places.That mob also includes the Hurricanes.
What did you make of this year's ITM Cup?