Crusaders make statement with big victory
Andy Ellis celebrated his 100th Super Rugby match in style as the Crusaders humbled the Blues 23-3.
When the popular halfback led his side on to AMI Stadium the stadium erupted with applause and 80 minutes later the cheers again bounced off the heavens as the Crusaders confirmed a victory that ensures they have now overtaken the Blues to hop to second place on the New Zealand conference table.
Ellis has never played in a Crusaders side that has lost to the Blues in Christchurch and as early as halftime it became evident that golden run, which stretches back to 2004, wouldn't be snapped.
Before the match began there was some drama when hooker Corey Flynn was injured in the warm-ups but much of the mayhem the Crusaders created only had a negative impact on the Blues.
Try-saving tackles - replacement fullback Israel Dagg and wing Zac Guildford unleashed a couple of gems in the second spell - superb tactical nous, a dominant scrum and a hard-nosed attitude with the ball in hand ensured the Crusaders are now sniffing for their eighth title.
The drizzle-induced slippery conditions encouraged the Crusaders to pouch the game-plan of slinging the ball wide as they instead utilised the left-right kicking combinations of Dan Carter and Tom Taylor.
Having the hard-running No 8 Kieran Read back after a two-month lay-off with a toe injury no doubt reinvigorated that desire to run straighter lines but it was his captaincy that proved so valuable as he commanded the pack with authority and made several bold calls.
The All Black's confidence to back his instincts was never more evident than around the 50-minute mark.
Rather than order Taylor to kick for goal, Read demanded several lineouts; inevitably - after the 14-man Blues had been warned for pulling down lineout drives - the sizzling Crusaders' pack made their opponents pay when tight-head prop Owen Franks burrowed over for the try to give his side a crucial 15-point buffer.
Some might argue it was a risky decision but coach Todd Blackadder commended Read.
"When you are 13-3 up - that is a try away - and you just want to keep the pressure on,'' Blackadder said. "I thought it was a good decision to get a good lineout drive. These games are won and lost on gutsy calls.''
Blues skipper Ali Williams' transgression at a ruck, he couldn't resist using a big mitt to rake the ball back, gift-wrapped the Crusaders their opening points.
Taylor, having earlier missed an optimistic long-range shot, snapped over the penalty and after 22 minutes the Crusaders crept out to a 3-0 lead.
A couple of minutes later they added another seven points.
With the Crusaders rushing defensive line creating doubt in the Blues players' minds, first-five Chris Noakes finally paid the price when a clearing kick was charged down by Ryan Crotty and Taylor nailed the regulation conversion.
Noakes and Taylor traded penalties before both sides retreated to the sheds at the break but despite the paucity of points few of the 17,300 supporters - the first full-house of the season - would have felt they hadn't already got their money's worth.
Despite the Crusaders' early lineout jitters when Williams and Culum Retallick were able to nab a couple of steals, the home side set their mandate with their rugged defensive lines.
Locks Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock set the tone; Romano sailed close to the wind with a few shoulder shots - and was finally pinged for one too many - while Whitelock rammed into one ruck so hard it appeared Blues No 6 Steven Luatua's head would disengage and come rolling off the park.
Carter's defence was also outstanding, something that appealed to Blackadder when reminded of his deeds.
"He is just on fire. He has been leading the charge. There were some tackles from everyone but he, in particular, put everything on the line,'' he said.
Williams was a picture of frustration as he repeatedly challenged referee Glen Jackson's rulings and was in danger of losing his rag when Retallick was yellow carded in the final seconds of the first half.
With the Crusaders quickly recycling the ball down the left-hand side, Retallick nullified the move by batting down the Romano-bound pass.
Pleas for a penalty try were rightly ignored but Taylor didn't waste the shot to add the extra points.