Crusaders v Blues: Five takeaways as spectacular ‘Saders book final spot

Jared Wright
The Crusaders thrashed the Blues 52-15 to book their place in the Super Rugby Pacific final; here are our five takeaways from the semi-final. 

The Crusaders thrashed the Blues 52-15 to book their place in the Super Rugby Pacific final; here are our five takeaways from the semi-final. 

30 home play-off victories

Any notion that the Blues may finally end the Crusaders’ insane home play-off record was quickly put to bed by Scott Robertson’s side. 

The Blues looked to make early inroads, but when Rieko Ioane spilt the ball around the halfway mark and Dallas McLeod pinned the Aucklanders back into their 22 with a super 50:22 kick, it looked ominous for the visitors.

In typical Crusaders fashion, they formed the driving maul, pulled defenders in and Richie Mo’unga threw the money ball out to Braydon Ennor, who rounded off the opening try after just three minutes.

That was just the start of what was a horrid first half for Leon McDonald’s side, who were bossed in every facet of the game for the first 40 minutes and continued throughout the game outside of the Blues’ flurry in the final 10 minutes. The hosts won the aerial battle, bullied the Blues at the breakdown and were savagely clinical with their opportunities.

While the Blues were completely played off the park and were well off the pace, the Crusaders made the most of every opportunity they were given.

If the Chiefs do set up an all-New Zealand final, they will be pleased they will not have to face the red machine in Christchurch but will be wary of the excellent form of the defending champions.

Breakdown brutality and kicking excellence

It was a team effort from the Crusaders as they won the battle up front, and while the likes of Tom Christie, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Scott Barrett and Codie Taylor were standouts at the breakdown, it was an attitude of the entire team that demolished the Blues.

While Dalton Papali’i did come up with a crucial steal or two, it mattered little as the ‘Saders obliterated the visitors at just about every breakdown and ruck.

The Blues struggled to build the phases, particularly in the first half, with handling errors and poor decisions with the ball in hand stifling their attacking opportunities. Robertson’s charges made it incredibly difficult to generate any quick attacking ball, making it easy to reset the defensive line, charge up into the attacking players’ faces and suffocate the Aucklanders’ attack.

The Crusaders’ kicking game was far superior as they pressured Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea under the high ball but also controlled the drop zones with Scott Barrett and co. pouncing on any and all loose balls.

Conversely, the Blues’ kicking game was almost non-existent, contributing heavily to their downfall. It was a massive tactical blunder, particularly with the two sublime kicking options in their arsenal in Beauden Barrett and Zarn Sullivan. 

Putting their hand up for selection

Ian Foster will name his squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship campaign on Sunday, and this semi-final gave a host of players one final chance to impress.

The men in red certainly made more of their opportunity than their counterparts in blue. 

Regular All Blacks Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan proved once again that they are straightforward selections with outstanding performances, completely outplaying their opposite numbers.

Meanwhile, France-bound Fainga’anuku produced a 50-odd-minute shift that should result in his name being called regardless of his eligibility beyond 2023. Fainga’anuku has been nothing short of sensational this season, and with Sevu Reece ruled out of the World Cup, the 23-year-old is a shoo-in.

The Crusaders’ other starting wing, McLeod, also had a standout game, providing Foster with a fascinating selection. A well-rounded footballer, he could provide cover at full-back, centre, wing and even fly-half, and while the All Blacks might not need so much versatility, he certainly played in such a way to spark a debate.

Quinten Strange and Tamaiti Williams put their hands up in the pack, but once again, it was Tom Christie whose work rate was unmatched and was arguably the best forward on the park. 

While Damian McKenzie still needs to stake his claim for the starting All Blacks’ jersey on Saturday, Foster got a good look at two of his potential pivots in this clash. As mentioned above, the Blues struggled to get any front foot ball, which negatively influenced Beauden Barrett’s game. 

While the Blues number 10 did have bright moments and attempted to drive his team in the right direction, his pack just didn’t give him any platform to do so. Meanwhile, Mo’unga produced a stunning display as he moved up to fourth place on Super Rugby’s all-time points-scoring list. He made intelligent decisions with the ball in hand, kicked well, and still produced moments of magic in his penultimate game for the Crusaders.

End of the MacDonald era

It’s a sombre end to a successful coaching stint for MacDonald in Auckland. He links up with Robertson’s All Blacks coaching staff next year after turning things around for the Blues.

He turned the side into a competitive Super Rugby outfit again, winning Super Rugby Trans-Tasman in 2021 and reaching the final of Super Rugby Pacific last term.

While coaches are often judged on their winning percentage and titles, MacDonald has to be commended for his efforts in turning the Aucklanders into a competitive, title-challenging side once again since taking charge in 2019. 

Whoever takes over in Auckland – whether it be Vern Cotter, Jono Gibbes or someone else – they will undoubtedly have a minor rebuild to oversee. However, MacDonald is still leaving a solid platform despite the whitewash in his final game at the helm.

Can the Crusaders be stopped?

Robertson has won a Super Rugby title in every single season he has been in charge of the Crusaders, and his side will not want to break that trend in his final year.

Scott Barrett spoke of producing a massive performance for the departing players in what could be their final home game and will look to do the same in the last match for their inspirational coach.

If the Brumbies beat the odds and knock over the Chiefs in the second semi-final, the action could return to Christchurch, where the hosts will be overwhelming favourites again. 

On today’s evidence, the Crusaders will be confident that they can claim yet another title regardless of the opponent they come up against in the showpiece event.

If they are to be stopped, the influence of their pack cannot be as prominent as it was against the Blues, and that will be an arduous task for their opponents in the final.

READ MORE: Clinical Crusaders reach another final after thrashing hapless Blues