Crusaders slam Sharks to make Super semis
And so the epic odyssey continues. Having already covered over 82,000km on their historic, earthquake-ravaged campaign in 2011, the Crusaders must now take one more deep breath and dig deep, for what may well be their biggest challenge of this tumultuous season.
A semifinal in Cape Town against the rested and recuperated Stormers is their reward for a dominating victory over the Sharks in Nelson last night. It's daunting, it's demanding, but it will be just the cup of tea for these crusading Cantabs, who will depart Christchurch this afternoon.
Another 24,000km (round trip) in their bulging frequent flyer wallets, another long and winding road to their next destination on this unprecedented season that will – when it finally ends – see them having played every single match outside of their home base.
Think about it. The mental and physical toll that must have taken. The powers of concentration to keep their standards so unerringly high – just four losses in 15 matches through the round-robin. And, all the while, the distraction of the city they live in torn apart by shifting plates and cruel fortune.
As coach Todd Blackadder remarked last week, if his men do get up and claim their eighth title in this gruelling competition, it will go down as one of the finest achievements, not just in rugby, but in sporting history.
Yet, somehow, the Crusaders keep winning, and more remarkably, keep their standards unbelievably high. How they do it? Frankly, it defies belief.
The only weekends they haven't hit the road this season have been for week two's quake-enforced abandoned match against the Canes, and their two byes. Every other round for the last 19 they've had to go somewhere, ranging from jaunts up and down the island to Nelson and Timaru respectively, to more challenging journeys to Perth, London, Bloemfontein and Cape Town.
Last night, in front of a disappointing small crowd of around 12,000, they kept intact their perfect playoff record at home, with a typically clinical display that never really gave the Sharks a sniff.
The Crusaders did take a while to get their game going in the first half, coughing up the first try – to No8 Willem Alberts off a great break from halfback Charl McLeod – and a 5-3 lead early on to the visitors.
It was loose stuff from the red-and-blacks, getting pushed off the ball at the breakdown, poor pass execution, one certain try butchered, and it took until just past the half-hour mark for them to produce some brilliance.
When it came it was scintillating stuff. A big scrum turned over a Sharks put-in and, from there, wing Sean Maitland did outstandingly well to first promote static ball off the deck, and then offload to Sonny Bill Williams for the finish. Carter's conversion and a subsequent penalty eased the home side out to an eight-point halftime lead. The game was then effectively decided less than 10 minutes into the second spell when, after traded penalties, No8 Kieran Read swooped on an adventurous Patrick Lambie pass and strolled in for a seven-pointer that made it 23-8. The Sharks were floundering at that point, and their hosts were never going to allow them an escape route – a late Ben Franks try and a couple more Carter penalties completing the rout.
Williams was the pick of the Crusaders backs, with a hearty return to form, though Maitland's effort off a long injury layoff was also commendable, and the young 'un Tom Marshall again showed what a prospect he is. Up front, the Crusaders scrum was its perpetually excellent self, and skipper Read shook off some early wobbles to finish strongly.
And if Brad Thorn is the cumbersome beast that one former All Black has described him as, that certainly wasn't evident as he and Sam Whitelock put in a muscular effort in the second row. So now the Crusaders, with Richie McCaw fit and available again, decamp a few days hence in the Cape to begin preparations for their 10th straight semifinal. Yes, that's 10 straight. None, though, have been finer than this remarkable one.
At the end of last night's game, Williams presented the Red Cross Christchurch earthquake fund with a cheque for $100,000, raised via his recent boxing fight in Auckland.