Knowler: Crusaders have earned choking tag

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 29/07/2013
Willi Heinz
PETER DRURY/Fairfax NZ
ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST: Crusaders replacement Willi Heinz is consoled after the Chiefs booked their place in the Super Rugby final.

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OPINION: "Chokers"

It's a label sports teams hate but the Crusaders are going to have to wear it.

Look at the facts: they have lost four semi-finals and a final in the last five years.

It's a record that speaks for itself.

A common thread has linked these defeats - each has been away from Christchurch.

In 2009 and 2010 they just didn't have the firepower to combat the Bulls in Pretoria and Soweto and in 2011 their epic travel schedule, a consequence of the earthquakes that left them homeless, caught up with them in the final against the Reds in Brisbane.

Last year they got stuffed 20-17 by the Chiefs in Hamilton.

In hindsight some damage had already been inflicted on the Crusaders before they boarded their flight to the North Island last Friday.

A poor travelling record - they lost five of their eight matches on the road - was to prove a thunderous blow to their title aspirations.

As winners of the New Zealand conference and Super Rugby's minor premiership, the Chiefs earned a crucial bye and home status for the playoffs.

On Saturday night the Crusaders discovered the true cost of those five regular season defeats.

Unlike the Chiefs, who were given a week to recuperate, muster their energy and prepare an ambush ahead of the semi the Crusaders were forced to play their qualifying final against the Reds.

The Crusaders were favoured to win in Hamilton following a recent run of hot form and the 43-15 win over the defending champion Chiefs in Christchurch three weeks earlier.

The Crusaders said they weren't that arrogant to believe the hype and repeatedly commented the earlier victory at AMI Stadium meant nothing.

That later statement was to prove prophetic.

As the clock wound-down at Waikato Stadium, and as the Chiefs forwards lifted their intensity, the Crusaders looked like a side that was running out of energy. That 18-point win in Christchurch meant nothing.

In the build-up Crusaders assistant coach Tabai Matson predicted the team that accepted their scoring chances would win.

He wasn't wrong.

Dan Carter's first drop-goal attempt on the halftime bell floated like a wounded goose and his second, in the dying minutes, faded to the left.

A powerful burst by Kieran Read soon after halftime should have to led to Zac Guildford scoring but Asaeli Tikoirotuma intercepted the No 8's pass. Another chance lost.

The Crusaders could have jumped out to a 16-3 lead. Instead they gained nothing.

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Then the Chiefs began their stirring fightback, starting with an Aaron Cruden penalty and a try to Lelia Masaga.

It is difficult to re-call when midfielder Ryan Crotty last - if he has ever done so - flung a blind pass such as the one that gifted Aaron Cruden his intercept try that, once converted, pushed the Chiefs out to a 20-9 lead.

Crotty has been one of better servants in the Crusaders backline this year and doesn't deserve to be remembered for one dreadful gaffe.

But that is what finals football is about.

Some teams make good decisions in pressure situations, others falter.

What hurts most is that, had they won, the Crusaders would have faced the travel-weary Brumbies in the final in Canberra instead of being forced to make the long journey to Pretoria.

And they would have rated themselves a decent shot to roll the Brumbies in the Australian capital.

But many of us thought that before the Crusaders faced the Chiefs in Hamilton, didn't we?

- The Press

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