Mark Reason: Scott Robertson's defensive masterclass was superb for rugby

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, left, oversaw the perfect defensive strategy to contain Beauden Barrett.
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Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, left, oversaw the perfect defensive strategy to contain Beauden Barrett.

OPINION: This column comes in praise of the Crusaders. Yes, I know, it's a shocking thought, enough to have the one eye that belongs to most Cantabrians popping out into the breakfast cereal, but credit where credit is due. The Crusaders' defensive performance against the Hurricanes last weekend was clever and skilful. It was also brilliant for the game of rugby.

Fifteen minutes or so into the game I got up and wiped off the television screen. I thought I must have walked through some strange time portal. But no, I wasn't wearing a bubble dress and my hair hadn't headed skywards in a bouffant surge. The Crusaders were really tackling low, like back in the day.

A couple of days later I reviewed the footage and I had to believe my eyes. The Crusaders made low tackles in a ratio of nearly two to one (around 50 to 30). In marked contrast the Hurricanes went high in a ratio of nearly two to one. They were still playing league.

Hurricanes No 10 Beauden Barrett is shut down by Crusaders replacement prop Mike Alaalatoa.
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Hurricanes No 10 Beauden Barrett is shut down by Crusaders replacement prop Mike Alaalatoa.

But the Crusaders had decided that they were going to put as much pressure on Beauden Barrett as humanly possible. That is not such an unusual game plan. But most sides compromise that plan with their high league-style tackle technique. The Crusaders were literally able to go a step further by tackling low.

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Of course players are free to pass out of the low tackle, but with so little time in which to play, we discovered that a lot of the Hurricanes backs really aren't very good passers. If Barrett has time to play, the kid is a million dollars. But against the Crusaders he looked lost. Barrett's last act of the game was a sideways shuffle and an uncertain pass which was dropped.

Ryan Crotty threw his hands triumphantly in the air and why not.. It was the first time the Hurricanes had gones tryless in 61 games. The last team to keep them from crossing the line was the Sharks in Durban at the start of 2014.

So kudos to Scott Robertson and Brad Mooar and the rest of the Crusaders coaching staff, regardless of what happened against the Chiefs in Fiji on Friday night. Six days is a short turn around in which to play two of your biggest games of the season.

Julian Savea is tackled by Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty last Saturday.
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Julian Savea is tackled by Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty last Saturday.

Not for nothing is Robertson known as Razor. He is a man who loves the tackle. Robertson said once, "I feel with coaching, if you're an expert in an area, you're going to get respect from players. For defence, tackle technique, or at the breakdown, something like that, I was passionate as a player, and I am now as a coach."

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Last Saturday was all about tackle technique. The Crusaders flooded the space, cut down the time and backed their one-on-one defensive ability. Richie Mo'unga did get run over a couple of times by Ngani Laumape when the Canes used him to batter out of defence. But the Crusaders adjusted at half-time. They shifted Mo'unga out to centre when the Canes were trying to exit their 22, and brought Crotty and Jack Goodhue in a position. No exit.

Is Goodhue really only 21? The All Blacks have been searching for a 13 since Conrad Smith retired. The Rieko Ioane theory hasn't worked out. But I will be very surprised if Goodhue isn't in the squad before long. He can tackle, he is a strong runner and, most importantly, like Smith he has innate game sense.

For too long rugby has been obsessed with rugby league. Willie John Mcbride, the former Lions captain and manager, said the other day that rugby was a lot more physical these days, "verging on violence". It was hard not to smile at such words coming from the mouth of the man who made the infamous '99' call, a verbal licence for an all out brawl.

But he also had a point. The influx of league coaches, where the hit is often king, has brutalised the game. In Britain the leaguies became all consuming on and off the pitch. There was Phil Larder, Shaun Edwards, Ellery Hanley, Mike Ford, Denis Betts, Andy Farrell and Dave Ellis. People were obsessed with the new defence.

That is not to say that the trend passed New Zealand by. The All Blacks have what Wayne Smith calls "a pretty close relationship" with Melbourne Storm. Robertson spent time recently with the Sydney Roosters discussing defensive strategies. But the league defence hasn't become written in stone the way it had been in England.

One of the first thing Eddie Jones did as England coach was to shift out Farrell and bring in Paul Gustard, formerly a flanker with Leicester. Robertson and Gustard are similar beasts. They love the tackle. They will take from other codes. Gustard has learned some strength techniques from judo. But they are fundamentally union men.

If you are playing South Africa and their big biffing ball carriers, then league tackle technique is a priority. But if you are playing the Canes, or even the All Blacks, then you want to cut down time and you also want to cover a wider space in the tackle. That means going low.

Gustard's mantra is "fast line speed covers a multiple of sins". The Crusaders' line speed last weekend was a lightning storm.

Of course there was much more to the Crusaders' defence. Mitchell Drummond, who can really motor, swept superbly, cutting out the chip over the top and making a couple of crucial cover tackles..

The defenders' angle into Barrett forced him to kick the ball in ways he didn't want to. They also defended the cross kick, ten yards back and ten yards in, so they were running onto the ball. When Barrett did try one, Mo'unga had dropped into full back, Seta Tamanivalu had moved into centre, and full-back David Havili was on the wing cutting out the threat with his jump and reach.

There were a couple of moments of cheatiness. Codie Taylor took out Beauden Barrett with the sort of trip that had David Beckham's family abused for a year. And Matt Todd, who is playing as well as any 7 in the country, used his apparent immunity as skipper of the day to take out a driving maul from a ludicrously offside position.

But it was a day to celebrate a young side playing with wit, skill and speed. Taylor, Pete Samu, Scott Barrett, Quinten Strange and almost the entire backline, the Crusaders had pace to burn all over the pitch. But they were just as quick of mind. Sometimes defence can be a glorious thing.

 - Sunday Star Times

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