Planet Rugby

Crusaders given food for thought

17th May 2008 10:13

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Daniel Bowden v Crusaders

Scoring pass: Daniel Bowden sets up the Highlanders' third try

It may have been a dead rubber, but tell that to the Highlanders. The men from Otago never gave champions-to-be the Crusaders a sniff of a chance at AMI Stadium on Saturday, winning the final Super 14 game 26-14.

Every one of the other would-be semi-finalists should sit down with videos of this game and take note upon note. Each of the Crusaders' threats was nullified one by one, leaving us with the extraordinary stat that the best attack in the Super 14 was nilled on its own patch for an entire half.

Where this Highlanders performance came from is unclear. They have been impressive in parts this season, insipid in others, but this was like nothing before. It was a fitting send-off for Craig Newby, and a beacon of hope for the next season if this squad stays together.

The Crusaders were off the boil. Right form the start, when not one voice boomed out to claim the kick-off, there seemed to be details of the game that simply weren't being concentrated on. From the first ruck, a slow no-look pass was easily intercepted by Highlanders scrum-half Toby Morland. The backs were running flat, ball was slow to emerge from rucks, and there was none of the usual pace and zip to their game.

But they did score the first try. The Highlanders' aggressive defensive line was caught offside three times in the first half, and points came from each penalty. Dan Carter banged this first one magnificently into touch 10m for the Highlanders' line, and a bog standard catch and drive yielded a try for Corey Flynn.

But two minutes later, the visitors were level. Carter launched a cross-kick, but it was very flat and near his own 22 was an odd place to try the tactic off second phase ball. Paul Williams read the kick, plucked it out of the air, and powered home to make it 5-5.

Then there followed a penalty exchange. Mike Delany got one after a high tackle. Carter replied from one given for another offside. Delany put the Highlanders back in the lead, and Carter equalised on the half-hour mark, again after an offside in defence. At 11-11, momentum, possession, territory were all equal. But that's normally a platform for the Crusaders to tear away...

This time, the Highlanders yanked the game away from their hosts. A clever step from Johnny Leota and offload to Niva Ta'auso brought them into the Crusaders 22, and Delany's grubber was only just covered by Kade Poki.

The drop out was run back ruggedly, and then Daniel Bowden's nippy little blindside run through some awful tackling worked space for Toby Morland to take an inside pass and score. Delany converted.

Two minutes later Poki made a terrible mess of fielding a kick - he wasn't the only one during the match - and Newby's chase saw Leon MacDonald's clearing kick charged down. From the 5m scrum, the Highlanders - with Newby again prominent - bashed and bashed at the Crusaders' defence before Adam Thomson flopped over the line at the back of a maul. Suddenly, the Highlanders lead 23-11!

Carter reduced the arrears to 23-14 with a penalty given for a high tackle, but Morland caused yet more consternation in the Crusaders back three with a kick, and Fetu'u Vainikolo took the ball, and should have done better with it than slicing a chip into touch.

Nine points is not a huge deficit for the Crusaders to overcome, given last week's heroics, but there was no way the Highlanders were letting it happen to them. The defence harried and hustled, causing Andy Ellis to spill good attacking ball, and causing even the returning genius of Carter to fling a couple of forward passes as he struggled to get on his usual front foot position.

In the end, there was nothing the home side could muster. One counter-attack led by Carter was turned over. Good line-out position was lost against the throw. Forward passes ruined movements, and others were dropped.

Newby led a break ten minutes after the break, which saw Ta'auso held up over the line after more excellent combining from Bowden and Leota, and there was a real case for a penalty try after another spilled kick from Poki had left the Crusaders in tatters. In the end, Delany slotted the penalty for not retreating ten to make it 26-14.

He had three other later chances to put the game out of sight on the scoreboard, but on the field of play, it already was out of sight. The Crusaders may have been victim to complacency, but other teams will be sitting up about this result. There is plenty for Robbie Deans and his men to think about. The Highlanders can take a well-earned break now; if this team can stay together we can hopefully see a little more of them next year.

Man of the match: Adam Thomson. He was king of both line-out and breakdown. Referee Keith Brown was also superb.

Moment of the match: The yellow card to Richie McCaw with ten minutes to go was the end of all home team hopes, and his face told us so.

Villain of the match: Nothing vicious to report.

The scorers:

For the Crusaders:

Try: Flynn

Pens: Carter 3

For the Highlanders:

Tries: Williams, Morland, Thomson

Con: Delany

Pens: Delany 3

Yellow card: McCaw (Crusaders, 70, high tackle)

Crusaders: 15 Leon MacDonald; 14 Kade Poki, 13 Caleb Ralph, 12 Stephen Brett, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Andrew Ellis, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Reuben Thorne, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Ben Franks

Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Kieran Read, 19 Nasi Manu, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Tim Bateman, 22 Casey Laulala.

Highlanders: 15 Mike Delany, 14 Paul Williams, 13 Niva Ta'auso, 12 Johnny Leota, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Daniel Bowden, 9 Toby Morland, 8 Craig Newby (c), 7 Tim Boys, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Clint Newland, 2 David Hall, 1 Chris King.

Replacements: 16 Jason Macdonald, 17 Keith Cameron, 18 Isaac Ross, 19 George Naoupu, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Aaron Bancroft, 22 Glen Horton.

Referee: Keith Brown (New Zealand)

Touch judges: Kelvin Deaker (New Zealand), Josh Noonan (New Zealand)

Television match official: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)

Assessor: Kim Eichmann (New Zealand)

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