Crusaders book home semi

02nd May 2008, 19:37

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Rain Checked: Ryan Kankowski closes in on Leon MacDonald

Rain Checked: Ryan Kankowski closes in on Leon MacDonald

The Crusaders all but sealed themselves a home semi-final with a closely contested 18-10 win over a brave Sharks outfit at a chilly AMI Stadium on Friday.

The Crusaders all but sealed themselves a home semi-final with a closely contested 18-10 win over a brave Sharks outfit at a chilly AMI Stadium on Friday.

The Crusaders, eleven points clear of the Sharks on the table, were tipped to get the better of their shaky opponents but were rescued at the death by a late try to replacement prop Wyatt Crockett that saved some blushes.

The win takes the Crusaders to 47 points on the table for the time being - an enormous 11 points clear of their nearest challengers (the Waratahs) with just two further rounds remaining.

The third-placed Sharks, on the other hand, remain anchored on 32 points as their Australasian sojourn sinks further into despair with a quartet of teams below capable of leapfrogging them over the remainder of the round.

It was a cold, cold night in Christchurch and we certainly got a taste of winter in the Southern Hemisphere as the rain came down in bucket-loads before kick-off.

There was even some hail! But the game didn't hail in tries and it was never going to be a free-flowing extravaganza.

But it was still an entertaining sort of encounter as the competition's first and third-placed sides scored a try apiece in the first half and showed their pedigree in the process.

It wasn't the best start ever for the Sharks who coughed up possession three times in the opening two minutes and were guilty of giving away two free-kicks.

The Crusaders tried to take advantage, but a forward pass by Sean Maitland to Leon MacDonald ruled out a certain try following a neat cross-kick by Stephen Brett.

However, Brett was on hand once again to punish the Sharks for intercepting a ball from an off-side position with the simplest of penalty goals to open up the scoring in the fifth minute.

The Crusaders were patient in their build-up, working their opponents from left to right in a bid to find a hole in the black-and-white wall of defence.

The visitors were starved of possession and territory for the most part of the first half, and failed to make any significant impact when they did get their mitts on the ball.

A chance to draw level in the 14th minute went a-begging after Ruan Pienaar - a regular number nine who had a shocker at fly-half - failed to land a straight 35-metre shot at goal.

Four minutes later and the Crusaders were celebrating their first try after what seemed like a strong defensive effort by the visitors until veteran prop Greg Somerville bustled his way over from close range.

The TMO confirmed that the try was legitimate and Brett added the extras to give the hosts a handy ten-point lead.

Once the Sharks had finally made it into the Crusaders' 22 - it took them a good 25 minutes to do so - Rory Kockott took over goal-kicking duties from Pienaar, but wasn't any better after missing yet another sitter.

But another opportunity opened up for the Sharks following a silly mistake from Brett after his re-start sailed into touch, setting up a scrum for the South Africans just outside the Crusaders' 22.

In-form Sharks number eight Ryan Kankowski picked up from the base of the scrum, put in a huge hand-off on Richie McCaw and three other would-be tacklers for a powerful race in towards the tryline for a great score.

Kockott was more successful with his conversion - a much harder attempt than his previous one - and the Sharks were back in the game.

Australian prop Ben Franks was the Crusader who paid the price for the try when coach Robbie Deans decided Wyatt Crockett would do a better job with five minutes of the half remaining.

Deans was left to rue his decision after Crockett spilled the ball with the try-line at his mercy after a good build-up by the forwards, but another successful penalty by Brett at least helped extend the home side's lead.

But, at 13-7 in front, the Crusaders were left in a spot of bother when McCaw was seeing yellow after tackling wing Odwa Ndungane from an off-side position under the new laws.

Ndungane made a telling break and whilst the Crusaders skipper saved his team a probable try, he cost them a valuable member of the side for ten minutes.

He also gave the Sharks three points following Kockott's ensuing penalty kick that took the scores to 13-10 and in turn wrapped up the first half.

It was a cautious start by both sides in the second half - neither side wanting to make a mistake with the slippery ball and opting for the boot on more than one occasion.

At one stage the ball was kicked back and forth ten times - five apiece - until Brett's thump into touch finally ended the game of aerial ping-pong.

What the Sharks failed to do however was take more advantage of McCaw's absence, not managing to put any points past fourteen players.

They did however take the game to their hosts a lot better in the second half than they did in the first - and the under-pressure Crusaders were left doing most of the tackling.

The Sharks had fluffed two try-scoring opportunities thanks to dropped passes by Albert van den Berg and Craig Burden respectively, Kockott didn't help his team's cause either by missing a chance to level the scores with another penalty kick in the 58th minute.

Even after fourteen phases, the Sharks failed to get over the Crusaders whitewash. Hats off to the red-and-black machine for knocking the cogs out of the South Africans' engine.

The Crusaders hit back in typical fashion though and had Crockett to thank for a try that not only made up for his earlier blunder but ultimately sealed the hosts' victory.

With the rain flooding the pitch, Pienaar was unable to control a grubber kick ahead, Crockett kicked on further and Stefan Terblanche was unable to control either, Crockett kicked again and again once more until he flopped his body on the loose ball.

The TMO was called in to make a tight call and wasted little time in awarding the replacement forward the match-winning try five minutes from full-time.

Brett was unable to make the conversion, but the Crusaders were in a safe eight-point lead and denied the Sharks a crucial losing bonus-point which may come back to haunt the men from Durban.

At 18-10, that was that. The Crusaders showed once again that in the tight, difficult conditions of wintry rugby they have no peers.

For the Sharks, who must feel as though they're marooned on an Australasian island of despair, it leaves them with plenty to do over the final fortnight to grab another place in the semi-finals.

Man of the match: He have been on the losing side, but number eight Ryan Kankowski confirmed his class with a brilliant touchdown late in the first spell to keep the Sharks in a predominanantly tight encounter. One of the star performers of this year's campaign, Kankowski continues to stamp his authority on the game with every match he plays. He may not have gone to the World Cup, but this fellow is possibly the jewel in South Africa's rugby crown.