Gifford: Blackadder's lot tough it out in Dunedin

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 25/05/2014
israel dagg
Getty Images
ALL BLACK: Israel Dagg produced a wonder tackle to save the Crusaders at the death against the Highlanders.

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OPINION: You take on a dynasty at your peril.

Ask David Moyes how much fun it was following Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Spare a thought then for Todd Blackadder. In the last five seasons his Crusaders have been the only New Zealand team to make the semi-finals every year. The Chiefs have been there four times, the Blues and Hurricanes once, the Highlanders not at all.

But this is the Crusaders we're talking about. Results Mark Hammett, John Kirwan or Jamie Joseph would love are considered failures. Only a title will satisfy some of their fans.

As a player and captain Blackadder was the most popular man in Canterbury rugby. But in the last week he's suffered the strongest criticism he's had during his six years coaching the Crusaders.

So the game last night against the resurgent Highlanders was vital in every respect, not least to prove to the fans back in Christchurch the hapless performance against the Sharks last week was an aberration, not a sign the team was falling to bits.

Turns out it was an aberration. The game in Dunedin was a heart stopper, which showed, among other things, that there's ticker galore in the Highlanders' ranks, and that I may have underrated Malakai Fekitoa when I suggested in April he was ready for test match rugby right now.

But although the result turned on a decision decided by not so much inches as a fraction of an inch, the Crusaders, away from home, against a form team, had the backbone to slug back from a halftime deficit and take the bonus point win.

Do I hear anyone suggesting today that they did it with kick and chase? Didn't think so.

■ SEVERAL things make the Sharks formidable, but the key factor is probably street smarts.

You might think from the flurry of cards dished out in their games in New Zealand they win with wild eyed, foaming mouthed, near craziness.

Not at all. Their rushing defence skirts the letter of the law at all times, but so does the defence of the All Blacks, the Chiefs, and, on a good day, the Crusaders. The Sharks are hugely aggressive, but it's controlled aggression. Sometimes they get it wrong, but that aggression can also be misread by referees. Last year, in the test at Eden Park, their captain Bismarck du Plessis made a perfectly timed, entirely legal tackle on Dan Carter that was so devastating the referee binned him on nothing more than the suspicion he must have been doing something wrong.

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On Friday night the contrast between the shrewd, tough minded way the Sharks play and the naïvete of the Blues was the winning and losing of the game.

The most blindingly obvious was the over-eager play of replacement Blues' prop Sam Prattley, who not once, but twice, gave away kickable penalties.

And the moment in the 63rd minute when the Blues' forwards had smashed five times at the Sharks' line, on the back of a powerful charge from a scrum by Jerome Kaino. For once the Sharks defensive line looked a little shaky. But instead of continuing to look to Kaino, Steven Luatua or Patrick Tuipulotu to keep grinding, which at worst would have probably drawn another penalty for the Blues, halfback Bryn Hall swung the ball to the backline, and, almost inevitably, the Sharks snuffed out the attack.

There were lessons by the score for the Blues in the loss, but the sad, cold reality is there's a 99% chance it's too late to profit from them this year.

- Sunday Star Times

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