Saturday 5th, April, 2003
Ref: Tappe Henning
Fulltime: Waratahs 34- Crusaders 31
Halftime: Waratahs 16 - Crusaders 7
A fine night in Sydney and a lot of expectation going into this one. While both teams are well in contention for a playoff spot at this stage neither side have been very convincing so far this season. In their last two matches the Crusaders have had two wins while the Waratahs have had two ugly losses which should give the edge to the Crusaders on form, and there was always that close fought game the last time these two sides met in Christchurch last season. (these articles might jog your memory of it: 1, 2, 3) :D To make matters worse for the local side two of their best backs, Matt Burke and Matt Rogers, were both out injured. They are both class acts in general play but more specifically the fact that they are also the first two choices for goal kicking duties was always going to be a factor. On paper at least this probably balanced out the fact that Mehrts wasn't fit for the Crusaders, again. Before I discuss the game I must just mention one annoying feature of Phil Kearns commentary. He insisted on calling the Highlanders the High Landers! He consistantly said it as two seperate words, bloody annoying. Fortunately they weren't playing in this match but since the Crusaders had beaten them last week they definitely got mention a lot during pre-match and post-match analysis! For that reason I will be referring to the home side as the War-atahs from now on... :P Anyway, on with the game. There was a small crowd in at Cone Stadium for this one, the 9:30pm (NZST) kickoff was a factor, but also the fact that the game was the free-to-air match of the round played a part in the viewing patterns of the regular RH punters. SG was here though, along with my cousy Hamish, another good Crusaders fan. The game started well for the Crusaders, with a good claim from the kickoff and a useful kick down field by Dan Carter to force the Waratahs back into their 22. Unfortunately the next 20 minutes or so didn't go so well. The Waratahs fought their way out of their half almost immediately, mainly through a great string of pick-and-go plays from the breakdown by their forwards. Within an couple of minutes rookie Tahs fullback Milton Thaiday (did his ancestors have a speech impediment or something!?!) ghosted around the grasping tackle of a bemused Crusaders prop and set up his centre Turinui for a nice try in the corner. Goal kicker for the night No 10, Shaun Berne missed the first of what would be many shots at goal, although to be fair this one was tough. 5-0 to the Tahs. (and the bastard did make the one that counted, dammit! but more on that later...) His next shot at goal may have actually been a really cunning planned move, as his penalty attempt hit the upright and the War-atahs reclaimed the ball and feed it wide for Nathan "I'm a hardman so don't even think about it" Grey smashed over out wide again. Berne kept up his good form and missed the conversion, 10-0 to the home side, after about 15 minutes. The Crusaders decided they better get into the game at this point and managed to get back into opposition territory after the kickoff and put some pressure on the home side. This pressure paid off as they were awarded an attacking scrum in great position on the Tahs 22. And they made use of it, with Robertson bursting off the back and feeding Marshall who headed for the corner, drawing 3 War-atahs defenders with him and feeding Vunibaka back on the inside to score an nice try. Leon Macdonald put his hand up for kicking duties and slotted it down the middle to narrow the gap considerably, 10-7 to the Waratahs. (I presume Dan Carter was first choice kicker but he was obviously feeling a bit too sore to kick at that stage, and looked to be having trouble even running soon after and was subbed off, yet another blow to Fantasy Rugby owners everywhere!) When Carter was subbed off the Crusaders bought on Scott Hamilton, a 2003 Super 12 debutant who has seen very little action so far this season. I would venture to suggest he won't see much more either. It was probably nerves but he just had a shocker on defence and didn't show a lot of clues on offense either blowing a possible try by attempting to barge through is defender on the touchline rather than feeding it back inside to the loose forward who had a far better path to the line. Personally I can't understand why Joe Maddock isn't the first choice off the bench. He was one of the best wingers in the NPC last season, and was on the subs bench so he's obviously not injured. In any case Carter's departure saw a reshuffle of the backline, with Ralph moving into centre and the Mauger boys sliding in a spot to first and second five. Hamilton took Ralph's place on the wing. Meanwhile back in the game. Unfortunately Rangi Macdonald's fine kicking form obviously gave Shaun Berne a few tips as he worked out that the aim was to get the ball between the big sticks and used this new found knowledge to good effect in the last 20 minutes of the half to slot a couple of penalties and give his War-atahs team a 16-7 lead at the half. I would imagine that Robbie gave the Crusaders lad's a right bollocking in the dressing room as they definitely needed it after their first half effort. The biggest concern by far was the poor protection of the ball and half-back at ruck time. On numerous occasions the War-atahs forwards just drove through the middle of the ruck (quite legally) as there were not enough Red and Black players at the breakdown. I remember one comical exchange between the ref and Crusaders captain Reuben Thorne (with Marshall listening in the background) where Tappe pointed at Marshall and said "It's not my job to protect this man at ruck time, you'll have to do that yourselves!". Fair comment I reckon! As a result of this lack of protect Marshall really did have a rough ride, particularly in the first forty. Of course that didn't justify his unnecessary rucking of Phil "the swampthing" Waugh earlier in the half, especially in the head. At the time it appeared that Waugh was definitely lying on the ball on the Crusaders side of the ruck but when it popped out of the ruck a good couple of metres away on the Waratahs side it was pretty bloody obvious that Marshall had no idea where it was and was just giving Waugh a rucking because he was there. (Although if I looked down and saw that homicidal mug looking back at me I think my natural instinct would be to use my boot too!) In any case it wasn't nice and Marshall was cited after the game and has received a 2 week suspension. It was definitely reckless and I imagine the Crusaders will just suck it up and wear it, although coach Deans didn't rule out appealing when interviewed on the Sunday news. Anyway, on with the game. Whatever Robbie said over the oranges (or put in them!) worked as the Crusaders came finished off a great raid with another nice try to Vunibaka. The try was a result of some good quick passing to get it wide and outflank the defence, with a nice wrap around between Ralph and Macdonald creating the overlap to Vuni to gas around. Macdonald added the extras and it was 16-14 to the Tahs. The War-atahs struck back well though, making some more good territory through their use of the quick pick-and-go and then pulling out a great score through the boot of Nathan Grey (I didn't know he had that in his game!) who made an awesome cross-field kick in the Crusaders 22 for the fullback Thaiday to run onto and score in the opposite corner. This was one of the first times that we noticed Scott Hamilton and it won't be going on his career highlights tape. Admittedly he had to try and follow the ball over his shoulder but he didn't even get close to claiming it and his tackle attempt on Thaiday was even worse! True to form Berne missed the conversion leaving the score at 21-14 to the War-atahs. The reigning champs weren't done yet however and struck back again. The Crusaders forwards formed a maul from an attacking lineout and Ritchie Mcaw scored in the resulting pushover. The slow-motion replay showed that he may not have controlled the ball very well during the grounding but the ref didn't call for the replay in any case so it went in the book. Macdonald had us all saying "Mehrten's who?" and slotted his 3rd straight conversion, 21-21 with about 20 minutes to go. This try seemed to give the Crusaders their second wind as they stormed back into the opposition half and before long had scored again. Again they stretched the Tahs defence out wide, with Corey Flynn being the recipient of a nice wide pass from Marshall and crashing over for the bonus-point try. Macdonald did the honours and the Crusaders hit the front for the first time 28-21. The Sydney crowd were very quiet at this point, no doubt remembering how their boys capitulated in a similar manner in both their recent home encounters. They soon found their voice again though as the Waratahs hit back with some nice passing of their own, with Shaun Berne popping a nice pass in the tackle to Turinui who went in for his second of the night and his team's fourth. Berne finally got a conversion and the scores were all tied up at 28-28 with about 10 mins to go. The crowd at Cone Stadium were feeling nervous but were quietly confident, knowing that their boys had won their fair share of these tight encounters in recent years. No doubt this fact wasn't lost on any of the players on the field either as defensive lines tightened up and the tension mounted. The Crusaders were the first to crack when they were penalised from an infringement during a ruck. Berne showed he could handle the pressure and slotted it over to take a 31-28 lead. It wasn't over yet though, and soon after the War-atahs were penalised when Phil Waugh was obviously in front of a a defensive clearing kick. MacDonald slotted the goal and it was all level at 31-31 with 2 minutes to go. The commentators started talking about a possible draw but when the War-atah's restart didn't make the 10 metre mark it appeared that they may have given the Crusaders on last chance. They took the scrum on centre field but were pinged for exactly the same offense when Mauger tried to kick in behind the defensive line and some of the chasers were in front of the kick. A penalty was awarded to the home side 49m out from the posts with no time on the clock. A penalty that will give Shaun Berne a place in War-atah history as he made up for a patchy night with the boot by slotting the winning goal with about 1 metre to spare over the cross bar. So the War-atahs won, and good on them. It was an exciting match that the Crusaders could definitely have stolen but wouldn't have really deserved to. In any case they came away with two bonus points from an away match, which is pretty good consolation in an away game in the Super 12. Both teams were tied on 24 competition points after the match, with the Crusaders holding onto 4th spot on points difference to make it two weeks in a row with 4 kiwi teams on top.