Crusaders vs Bulls
Referee: Andrew Cole
Conditions: Afternoon game. Hot, dry, no wind, at altitude.
Half-time score: 19-11 Bulls
Full-time score: 32-31 Bulls
I didn't watch this one live, given that it was telecast about about 1am NZ time. Instead I watched the Sunday morning replay (not knowing the result, such willpower eh?) and made some notes as I watched.
Some interesting pre-match comments in the telecast. The Bulls have been playing pretty well this season and were coming off a big win against the Reds last week. The Bulls coach commented that this week was the first one that they had all players available for selection and as a result the starting team was the strongest they had been able to field all year.
Equally the Crusaders had a couple of key guys available again, with Mehrts and his side-burns being available for the first time in two months and Marshall returning from his two game suspension. Given the history of close matches between the two sides (at least when they have played in SA) it had all the ingredients for an intriguing game.
And so onto the game.
4 min - The BUL kickoff and put good pressure on the CRU receivers. They keep the pressure on and eventually win a penalty when big Ruby Thorne gets pinged for holding onto the ball in the tackle. Dead-eye dick Louis Koen slots it. 3-0 BUL 5 min - Almost immediately the CRU get a shot at goal themselves as the BUL get nailed for hands in the ruck from the kickoff. Mehrts does the business (man it's good to have him kicking the goals again!) and its 3-3 8 min - Bulls look to move the ball from the kickoff but Dan Carter catches Koen a bit high, just inside the BUL half, about 55m out. Koen gives it a good nudge but can't quite get it over the bar. 10 min - Ruby is called for a late tackle which gives Koen another shot from about 45m out on the other side of the field. This time he slots it and it's 6-3 BUL 17 min - Mehrts doesn't manage to get his restart the required 10m and the next 7 minutes is punctuated by some big hits and sloppy play. A CRU infringment in kicking range (which seems to be anywhere from about 60m out for Koen at altitude) gives him another chance, which he converts. 9-3 BUL 21 min - The BUL make a break and score what looks like a good try in the corner. The commentators certainly think is a good try too as they replay it over and over and gush on about it. Unfortunately for the BUL (and their fans in the commentary box) ref Andrew Cole manages to find a forward pass in the build up and disallows the try and awards a free kick to the CRU on their 5m mark. A lucky break to the CRU if you ask me, but we'll take it! In a bold move Marshall and Mehrts try to run it and move it wide from here but all the succeed in doing is giving the BUL an attacking lineout on the other side of the field. They can't capitalise though and play moves back into the BUL territory. 25 min - CRU awarded a penalty for Bulls offside play and Mehrts slots it. 9-6 BUL 29 min - Mehrts has another shot at goal from out wide but can't get the direction right. 30 min - CRU regain possession from the dropout and hammer the BUL defensive line. They stretch the defense and look to have an overlap as they spin it wide but Aaron Mauger, who looked like he could have gone all the way himself, feeds it out to Vunibaka who has two men on him. He almost manages to touchdown in the corner anyway but Joost is there to do a Grogan-on-Goldie and just strips the ball away from Vunibaka in the act of touching it down. 31 min - However the Bulls don't survive for long. Koen clears back to the halfway line but the Crusaders spread it wide from resulting lineout and Nathan Mauger breaks the defensive line and feeds the supporting Quickdraw Mccaw on his inside to score a nice try. His 4th in sucessive games. Mehrt's conversion hits the posts but the CRU hit the front, 11-9. 34 min - But not for long. Koen the kick-a-nator is back at it, and slots another long range penalty. 12-11 BUL. 37 min - From the restart the BUL swing back on attack and fullback Jaco Van der Westhuyzen breaks the line by gassing past a desperate attempted cover tackle by Greg Somerville and puts a beautiful step to avoid the sweeping cover tackle from fullback Aaron (or Erin if you listened to the commentator) Mauger to score a nice try. Unsurprisingly Koen converts to give the home side a 19-11 lead going into the first half. Nathan Mauger was injured late in the half, and was replaced by Scott Hamilton. Hamilton went into fullback and Aaron Mauger moved back into the mid-field. Second-half
I admit I'm not a huge fan of Scott Hamilton, especially when we have Joe Maddock on the bench as an option, but he does seem to have been able to put his horror deer-in-the-headlights performance in Sydney behind him. Early in the second half he makes a positive impact, making a nice chip kick and regather over the defense and finds Mccaw who forces a desperate BUL defense to hold on too long and gives Mehrts an opportunity to add to the score. Oddly enough he takes it, 19-14 to BUL. 45 min - Koen starts showing off and slots a 45m drop-goal just to rub it in to stretch the score to 22-14 to the BUL. 49 min - CRU pick it up a gear and enjoy their first concerted period of attack in the match and really stretch the Bulls defense. Eventually they score a nice try as Dan Carter wrongfoots three scrambling Bulls defenders and offloads to Vunibaka on the burst who scores under the posts. Merhts adds the extras to close the scoreline back up to 22-21 BUL. 52 min - The CRU make a few keep substitutes as Maxwell and Hammett make way for Thorn and Flynn. If anything these subs help to lift the intensity and a great phase of attack ends in another try, with Mehrts dotting down near the posts and converting his effort to put the CRU back in front 28-22. 55 min - The CRU surge upfield again through a blockbusting run from big bad Brad but unfortunately Marshall can't control some messy ball from the ruck about 5m out and knocks it on. At this point it really seems like the CRU are going to run away with the game as they really seem to be fired up. Both sides make some more substitutions with Broomhall and Hewett coming on for Robertson and Feek. Robertson had a reasonable game but didn't really impress and he is really running out of chances to prove he is worthy of another season in Black. So far in the campaign I think Broomhall has been the more constructive player which Robertson guilty of trying a bit hard to standout. Anyway, back to the action. 60 min - The BUL have found another gear of their own and hammer away at the Crusaders line. They almost score but an opportunistic Scott Hamilton swoops on the loose ball as it pops out of the BUL ruck about 2m out and helps the CRU regain control and clear back out towards half-way. 65 min - Play swings back towards the BUL line again and Mauger and Carter almost break through the BUL defense but again defensive pressure forces a mistake and the attack breaks down. 73 min - The BUL aren't giving up and have dominate possession for the next 8 minutes or so. Their efforts are eventually rewarded as they spread it wide from a lineout and Jaco the fullback scores his second try of the game, which Mr-Automatic coverts to give the Bulls the lead back with about 7 minutes to go and yet another thrilling finish between these two teams on the cards. 29-28 BUL. 78 min - As if following a script to maximise drama the champ of the day turns to chump as Keon knocks on when looking to kick clear of his 22, giving the visitors a great opportunity with time ticking down. As they have done so often in this sort of position the CRU deliver, using the scrum to set up Mehrts for a successful drop goal which gives the lead back to the CRU and gives flashbacks of another dramatic droppy that Merhts nailed in a very similar situation a few years back. Wisely, this time Merhts keeps his finger's to himself. 31-29 CRU 81 min- However this time the script was obviously written by a South African. The BUlls are awarded a penalty about 10m inside their own half just as the hooter sounds. Joost takes a quick tap and the Bulls run it up for one last gasp. Fullback Jaco makes yet another great break and his teammates carry it on to move into Koen kicking range. The CRU defense are well aware of that and look to avoid giving away a penalty by infringing, which gives Koen the space he needs to have one shot at glory, a wobbly dropkick that holds it's line and gives the Bulls the game. 32-31 A thrilling game indeed, and the second close and dramatic away loss of the season for the Crusaders. Always tough to take, but so much more satisfying than a blowout loss, especially when you manage to take away a valuable bonus point from the contest. Standout players for me were the inside back combinations for both teams. Koen and Merhts for their tactical and goal kicking and Marshall and Van der Westhuyzen for their sniping runs and never-say-die attitudes. Jaco Van der Westhuyzen and his two tries and numerous breaks would be second in line for man of the match honours after Koen. While the Bulls are unlikely to be able to make the playoffs (they haven't been mathematically eliminated yet) they have to be happy with their improvement this year, going from the competition's whipping boys to being in 7th place on the standings and the best of the South African teams. It was obvious from the size and attitude of the home crowd that they feel that their long suffering franchise is on the up. For the Crusaders they will be disappointed to only take one competition point away from this game. They are still definitely in the hunt for a playoff spot but a win here could have really helped them nail down a home semi, especially when they still have two tough games to go, away to the Stormers and then the Brumbies. As a Crusaders fan it would have been great if they could have picked up 5 points in this game but from a competition perspective these sort of upsets just make it all the more exciting and set up an amazing final two weeks of round robin action.