Crusaders vs Chiefs
Jade Stadium, Christchurch
14th March, 2003
Referee: Steve Walsh
Final score: Crusaders 36 - Chiefs 29
Half-time: Crusaders 16-9
After an humiliating loss in Auckland last week the Crusaders had a lot to prove this week.
Not only to themselves and their fans either, their critics had jumped in feet first like Troy Flavell in a ruck to have a go at the reigning champs, claiming that the away loss meant curtains for the 2003 campaign and the chances of the Crusaders All Blacks to wear the silver fern later in the year.
Any intelligent rugby fan knows this type of sensationalism is just bollocks. In the super 12 you can't expect to go through the season unscatched, and if you are going to lose then it's more likely that you will lose an away match to another team that has started the season well, in this case the Blues. Last season the unbeaten Crusaders only had one away win that was a walkover, their 48-20 win over the Canes, every other away match was won by 7 points or less. (refresher on last seasons results)
Add to this the fact that the core of the kiwi super 12 teams is the same as the core of the big 5 NZ NPC teams and it's hardly surprising that history should repeat itself with the Aucklanders getting up over the Cantabrians again. The only thing that should have surprised anyone was the points margin.
Anyway, this longwinded intro leads me to the point that the Waikato NPC team of 2002 had a great season, including beating Canterbury in one of the best games of 2002. Most of those same guys are in the 2003 Chiefs team, so it stands to reason that these guys are going to be competitive with the Crusaders on a balmy Christchurch night, and they were.
SG and I watched the game on the box (as opposed to 'from the box') at Cone Stadium while DH turned out Jade to soak up the atmosphere in person.
This game saw the return of Norm "Mad" Maxwell at lock and he made his precense felt almost immediately, committing at least two penalties in the first 5 minutes of play and generally just getting under the oppositions skin. Sometimes his antics are quite amusing but when he costs his team 3 points per incident the joke can wear thin.
In any Norm was instrumental in handing the Chiefs a couple of kickable penalties which David Hill slotted for an early 6 point lead after about 10 minutes.
While they had the lead though the Chiefs were struggling in the possession and territory stakes and by the 24 minute Dan Carter had slotted a couple of penalties of his own to even things up.
Carter kicked ok in this match but he is still pretty damn average (before this game he was only kicking 50% of his goals so far this season). It's quite a concern that he appears to be our best option after Mehrts. I would have thought MacDonald or A. Mauger would be better options but obviously Mr Deans and co don't think so.
Anyway the Crusaders forwards were really starting to dominate proceedings and this resulted in another penalty to Carter and then a great mauling try to Richie Mccaw, which came from a good lineout win 15 metres out from the Chiefs line.
16-9 at the half was a pretty good representation I thought, the Chiefs had been in the match and taken the chances they had but really the Crusaders deserved to be in front with their domination of the ball. SG and I were pretty happy with proceedings really, although it was a bit of a worry that the Crusaders weren't able to finish off a few more attacking chances. We had this problem in Auckland the week before and it didn't bode well there!
The second half started very well though and when Ralph scored to open it out to 23-9 you could almost feel the relief in the crowd at Jade, that feeling that your team has the game under control and the score-board is going to start ticking over on the way to a comfortable win.
Mistake. Don't count out this gutsy Chiefs mob just yet. Back in Crusaders territory the mecurial Regan King skipped through a gap in the defence and slithered over for a good try, which Hill converted and it was tight again at 23-16.
It became obvious at this point that the Chiefs had changed their game plan in the second half, and were planning on spending more time in the Crusaders half. This tactic obviously meant that kicking came to the fore, and without Mehrts the Crusaders didn't win these kicking duels like they normally do. Carter and A. Mauger seem to have the vision to know where to kick it but more often than not their execution (direction and distance) wasn't good enough.
While this tactic certainly helped the Chiefs out in the territorial stats I'm not sure it really helped them in the one stat that counted, the score. This was mainly due to the huge improvement in the Crusaders lineout. Having Maxwell back certainly helped there but I thought rookie hooker Corey Flynn had a great game overall, and his throwing was particularly sharp. I'm not sure if he did enough to keep Hammett out of the starting lineup but it's certainly nice to have a guy like that on the bench.
Anyway after a messy passage of play the Crusaders got a roll on again and Nathan Mauger, back from injury, finished off a nice try, created by a Dan Carter break. Carter converted to give the Crusaders a 31-16 lead, and lull the Crusaders fans back into "ahhh, another comfortable win..." mode.
Another mistake. The Chiefs didn't like that idea and swung back onto attack, resulting in a good passage of play for them and two penalties for Glen Jackson, who had subbed on. This made the score line 31-22 with about 11 minutes to go and a lot still to play for.
An aside. Glen Jackson is a very slick player. I reckon he is the closest think in NZ rugby to Andrews Mehrtens in terms of the style and precision with which he plays the game. He is one of those classy players that seems to always have time to make the right decision and rarely makes a bad mistake. I'm not quite sure why he hasn't had a look in for higher honours. I'd certainly rate him well ahead of his team mate David Hill who has had an AB tour.
Anyway, back to the game. With 10 minutes to go both teams still had plenty to play for. The Chiefs had the momentum and knew that even if they couldn't score twice if they just scored once more they would take away a valuable "I lost by not too badly" bonus point. Meanwhile the Crusaders appeared hungry for the four try bonus point, something that you really have to get if you have the chance.
The Crusaders got their chance first. Carter declined a penalty shot at goal from right in front and opted for the lineout instead. Again the Crusaders forwards executed a maul from the lineout and pushed over for another try, this time to Corey Flynn. Carter couldn't convert but at 36-22 the game was won and it was back into "comfy win mode" for the Red 'n black fans.
Yet another mistake. The Crusaders couldn't control the kick off and the Chiefs rumbled up into their opposition 22 again. The Crusaders defense looked strong but replacement Chiefs half-back Isaac "Hugo" Boss took advantage of a penalty to tap and go before the defense could get set and he slipped through for a nice try. Jackson converted and it was all over at 36-29, a seven point bonus point win to the home team and a consulation bonus point for the vistors, pretty fair on the whole.
Stand out players for me were the entire Canterbury tight five, both teams' fullbacks (Leon Macdonald and Todd Miller), both open-side flankers (McCaw and Holah) and Nathan Mauger. Dan Carter had another good game, but he needs to just sharpen up his kicking game before I am totally comfortable with him in there. Of course with Mehrts injured it's not like we have many options so if Carter can continue to play like this then we'll take it!
Ben Hurst played quite well in Meg Marshall's place, but I'd much rather have the wiley old bleached-blonde swede-muncher in there. Again it's nice to know that your backup player is capable though, and this was good proof of that.
A bye for the Red 'n Black boys this week, time to rest up before they head south to beat up some Scarfies in Dunedin on the 29th. What a game that will be!