This was impressive. The shift that started in Canberra lifted another level here last night as the Crusaders entered Super Rugby title contention with their best performance of the season.
The Blues had tagged this a "test" match all week as they headed south looking to end a nine-year drought in Christchurch, and if that was so, it was the red and blacks who passed this examination with flying colours.
The Blues have now had a pretty vivid look at the standard that's required to go all the way in this competition, and they remain short of that mark if last night was anything to go by.
In a pivotal encounter for the two sides, both ensconced in the competition's top six, it was the Crusaders who made the big statement with a beautifully brutal performance in unfriendly conditions. It was muscular, efficient, committed and too good for Sir John Kirwan's young team.
It was also timely, helping the Crusaders leap-frog the Blues into second place in the New Zealand conference, ahead of Friday night's top-of-the-table clash with the front-running Chiefs in Hamilton.
The 23 points the Crusaders scored were very good on a slippery, rainy night. But the three they kept this talented Blues side to sent a chilling message to every team with aspirations of lifting the silverware this season. The Crusaders are well and truly back in business. They have now won four on the bounce, and after moving up a gear in Canberra, this was another step in the right direction.
The Crusaders survived the late defection of starting hooker Corey Flynn, who tweaked his hamstring in the warmup, and celebrated halfback Andy Ellis' 100th game in brilliant style. Typically, the halfback had a busy, bustling game.
The Crusaders pack were just too good for their Blues opposites, led by All Blacks Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks and the returning Kieran Read. Read's leadership, when he spurned a certain three points early in the second half to go for the dagger seven-pointer, was a difference-maker. If only the Hurricanes had had such strong convictions a night earlier.
The Blues battled all night and simply could not break down the red and black defensive wall. Dan Carter's tackling commitment must have been inspirational to his team-mates.
The Crusaders had been well worthy of their 13-3 halftime lead, simply because they were so much more effective at converting pressure into points.
But it took them a while in a first half of pretty fierce intensity. It was the Blues who dominated the opening quarter, looking ominous as they played the early possession game in the right parts of the field.
But the Crusaders defence held, and eventually the red and blacks were able to work their way into the match, being first on the board through a 22nd-minute Tom Taylor penalty and first try-scorers, too, when second five Ryan Crotty charged down an attempted Chris Noakes right-foot nudge to cross for the 10-0 lead.
Noakes got three points back around the half-hour mark, but by now the Crusaders were humming. Only a poor Robbie Fruean pass prevented something positive five minutes from the break then, right on halftime, the red and blacks forced the Blues into a costly error.
The home forwards had got the roll on beautifully, and when ball was shifted right, Culum Retallick's hand got in the way of Zac Guildford's transfer to Luke Romano outside. The TMO got involved and eventually Retallick was sent to the bin and Taylor stretched the lead back to 10.
The Crusaders cut it fine, but they made their rivals pay just before Retallick was due back. It came from a succession of penalties, and skipper Kieran Read showed fine judgment to go for the lineouts, and a potential killer blow.
The Blues transgressed first time, and the Crusaders stayed on course. Second go round, the drive went in and Franks was over for a big-time seven-pointer, and a 20-3 lead.
From there it was always going to be too tough for the Blues on a night when the Crusaders were in unforgiving mood in front of a full house of 17,264. Job done. Statement made.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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