Storm clouds lift a little for the Crusaders
LIAM NAPIER IN CHRISTCHURCH
Only just, but they'll take it.
In a low-scoring grind that featured few highlights, the Crusaders finally shook off another typically slow start to down the stoic Stormers in Christchurch last night.
It took all of 70-minutes for Todd Blackadder's men to cross the chalk and they snuck home, in what some will term a lucky escape, thanks to a last-gasp Tom Taylor penalty.
But after defeats to the Chiefs and Blues, the 14,000 locals will be thankful for this reprieve. After a week where their earthquake-ravaged region was battered with devastating floods that affected up to 17,000 properties, the Crusaders again showed their ability to triumph over adversity.
The Crusaders hadn't lost at home to any South African team for 13 years. They've now recorded 33 straight wins over teams from the Republic, while the Stormers had never won in Christchurch. That record was severely tested, though.
Blackadder made seven changes and for much of the match he would have been asking himself where to turn next.
It's an ugly road back from 0-3 and to avoid such a hole without Richie McCaw and Dan Carter the red and blacks will take some heart from the result. They can now travel to Melbourne this week without the dreaded "must-win" tag. Not that they haven't got plenty to work on.
Twice in the first-half Blackadder's men turned down kickable penalties that almost proved costly. Talk about uncharacteristic. It was odd tactics from a side desperate to get off the mark.
Right now, the Crusaders scrum is their biggest weapon; their impotent attack the biggest concern. They aren't throwing anything different at the opposition. In truth, they haven't for some time. No variations. Not enough changing of angles. A lack of penetration and x-factor. Too many players consistently running laterally, failing to pose serious questions.
The back-line wasn't helped by Willi Heinz's laboured delivery, though he made one standout second-half break. At least three times with his side camped on the Stormers line the halfback looked left and right at the base, pausing for long periods before picking a target. That hesitation negated any impact his forwards gained and allowed the defence to re-set.
The Stormers weren't pretty, either. But they sure were effective. Their gang tackling forced mistakes and, as a unit, their relentless, scrambling defence was near impenetrable.
When the Crusaders lacked support, their loose-forwards were also quick to pounce on the home side's isolation at the breakdown.
The visitors - legal or not - were also extremely successful at slowing ruck delivery at crucial stages.
Recalled to the wing after being strangely dropped last week, All Black Israel Dagg went close but it was Stormers captain Jean de Villiers who had the best chance of the first spell ruled out when he attempted to score on the post.
The 3-3 half-time ledger was a fair reflection of the largely uninspiring encounter.
With a piece of magic, de Villiers produced the most memorable movement of the match 10 minutes after the break. Not that there was much competition.
After taking an inside ball from the impressive Schalk Burger, the Springboks skipper showed all his vision and experience with a beautiful chip to send midfield partner Damian de Allende over.
That set-up a daunting 10-point lead for the visitors and sparked immediate action from the Crusaders bench.
On debut, Tasman rookie Kieron Fonotia was one of many to make the desired impact, crashing over after a patient build-up to give the Crusaders a sniff with 10 minutes to play. Taylor missed the wide conversion, leaving his side two-points adrift, but nailed a match-winning penalty to steal a much-needed victory.
Crusaders: Kieron Fonotia try, Tom Taylor pen 3
Stormers: Damian de Allende try, Demetri Catrakilis pen 2, con
What did you make of the 2014 Super Rugby season?