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The Great Crusade

The Great Crusade

The Great Crusade

Crusaders_SRFinal2017_primary

IT was always going to take a remarkable effort against such odds, but the Crusaders have done it, an achievement that rates alongside, if not even higher that their herculean defensive effort in the freezing cold of Canberra 17 years ago.

You can argue that one amongst yourself, if you feel the need!

They got pretty much every aspect of their hit and run mission to Johannesburg spot on. 

Unlike last year when they were downed in the quarter-final at Ellis Park, they got there as early as possible to give themselves the best chance possible to get used to the thin air, the red hot atmosphere and bright sunshine of the sort we have not seen in New Zealand in months.

So their preparation was very good. They had a plan, and they executed it to telling effect.

Their defensive systems had a thorough workout in two torrid sudden death games in New Zealand, and so were primed and ready for the final, where they were as close to flawless as you could humanly expect against such a hard running opposition.

With the crowd ready to play assistant ref they had to be disciplined, especially with their speed off the line, but they were able to put pressure on the Lions backs early on, forcing a succession of handling errors.

The Lions rather lost faith in their backs after that opening period and went to their forwards to try and break the line, but the Crusaders were able to meet force with strong resistance.

They were too accurate for the Lions at breakdown, the key being the decision making. They picked their moments when to attack the ball, when to commit numbers, and when to back off and prepare to defend the next phase. That organisation allowed Matt Todd in particular to win crucial steals or penalties, often in pressure defensive situations.

Meantime they grabbed pretty much every scoring chance they could, be it from three or five point opportunities, hoping to build as big a lead as possible before the inevitable Lions comeback, and when their own lungs and legs started to feel the effects of the travel and the lack of oxygen.

As well as the breakdown, the Crusaders won the other key battles.

At scrum time Joe Moody and then Wyatt Crockett applied pressure and forced penalties out of the flawed technique of Lions tighthead Ruan Dreyer, who really should have been dragged.

And despite losing a couple of their own through errant throwing, the Crusaders won the big moments at lineout time, defending the inevitable Lions drive superbly and spooking the home team so much that they were able to put up jumpers and steal throws in their own red zone, something most teams daren’t do for fear of compromising their defence of the driving maul.

They won the contest in the midfield backs, where Vorster, Mapoe, and later the powerful van Rensburg were kept in check through the superb defence of Ryan Crotty and the richly promising Jack Goodhue

And they had easily the better bench. 

Razor Robertson went to it early, knowing he had to keep the energy levels at maximum as deep into the game as possible, and he was rewarded for his faith with outstanding input from Crockett, Ben Funnell, Allan Ala’alatoa and Luke Romano in particular.

Obviously the red card was a factor, although how much of a factor is open for speculation. If you’re going to lose a player, a flanker is probably the one that can be best covered.

Kwagga Smith simply made a bad decision…or perhaps made a non-decision.

His act was clumsy and unintentional, but terribly dangerous. It was similar to the red handed out, for example, to Jason Emery in the Highlanders Sharks game last year, but there is no doubt under the application of the law he had to go. Accidental is no longer an excuse when it comes to player safety.

The counter argument is that he had no chance to bail out, but the reality is the decision has to be made earlier.

On Rugby Nation we showed a clip where Israel Dagg was chasing a high kick about to be fielded by his opposite Courtnal Skosan.
Dagg was a good 10-12 metres away from the probable point of contact when he realised he was not going to make it, and so opted to wait until Skosan hit the ground, when he tackled him as hard as he could. Players have to make their judgement and their decision earlier, or they’ll risk winding up in big trouble.

Still, it was rotten luck for Smith, an excellent player with a clean reputation, and I don’t think anyone could accuse him of deliberate foul play. We remember the penalty against Charlie Faumuina that decided the second Lions test, an uncharitable, harsh call, but technically correct under the law.

And it shouldn’t detract in any way from the Crusaders achievement. To travel that distance, off a much more demanding season schedule, to play in front of a massive crowd with hardly any support, in the lung burning air of the high veldt, and beat such a very good Lions team is quite outstanding.

It caps a great season under a fresh and vital new coaching staff, and under the calm, lead from the front captaincy of Sam Whitelock.

The Crusaders may have signed off on a great season, but they may have just kicked off a new era.