You’ve got to hand it to them. At similar points in their qualifying finals, both the Blues and the Crusaders looked like they were ripe for the picking and the smell of an upset was in the ash-clouded air. Yet, history will now show that both teams lived to fight another day, and with healthy score lines to boot.
It was funny watching those first quarters of both games, that somehow the fortunes of both New Zealand teams could follow suit.
And the common denominator was defence, albeit for the different reasons.
The Blues big defensive problem was of their own doing; the way they kept opening up in midfield.
Stephen Brett, especially, was having all sorts of trouble with the Waratahs runners, dropping off tackles with disturbing regularity early on.
For the Crusaders, it wasn’t their own defence causing the issue, but rather the Sharks’. As many teams have learned this year, the way to shut down the Crusaders’ massive midfielders is to limit their space, and the Sharks did this superbly.
Early on, their fast, physical defence forced several errors from Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Freuen, and for the first time this season I found myself scribbling down “Crusaders look rattled.”
While the ‘Tahs were looking pretty good with their bits-and-pieces team in Auckland, they didn’t quite look as impressive as the Sharks did at this same point.
In Nelson, the Sharks had certainly adopted that “who dares wins” mantra that Roarer Rickety Knees was pleading the Tahs to embrace during discussions last Friday. Their twin playmakers, Frenchman Frederic Michalak, and young tyro Patrick Lambie were playing with an evident flair, but it was enterprising scrumhalf Charl McLeod that impressed me. I would’ve said he’s one to watch for the future, if he wasn’t 27 already.
But in both games, and at around the same time, something clicked for the home sides (relatively speaking, in the Crusaders’ case).
For the Blues, it was the best way of nullifying Tom Carter’s early try for the Waratahs, with some slick hands sending goal-kicking winger Lachie Munro over minutes later.
From here on in, the Blues just starting ramping it up and it was evident that they lifted their intensity in defence. Keven Mealamu and Jerome Kaino were having a field day trying to out-do each other in the hitting stakes, and slowly, the Blues started turning around the possession and territory stats.
In the second half, the Blues kicked it up yet another gear, and it was noticeable at this point that Kurtley Beale wasn’t running as much for the Tahs, as they fell back into the conservative kicking game that has plagued the Waratahs for years.
Not that this was the time to be playing entertaining rugby, but neither were they going to mount any points by kicking the ball back to the opposition. The Blues were looking more and more dangerous on the counter, too, as if to rub salt into the wound.
And on the occasions the ball found touch, Anthony Boric and Ali Williams were literal standouts at lineout time.
The Waratahs’ fortunes in this department weren’t being helped by John Ulugia’s throwing either, and weekend comparisons to Michael Beer were a bit harsh on the obscure Western Australian offie, in my humble opinion.
The more the game went on, the better the Blues pack got. Their front row certainly finished on top, and by the time he was given an early rest, Williams was playing like a backyard flyhalf. With chip and grubber kicks, a try most centres would’ve been proud of, he couldn’t have finished much better if he awarded himself man-of-the-match.
Luke McAlister and Brett had well and truly reacquainted themselves by game’s end, and McAlister’s penalty goal from half way just before time was a guide of just how much confidence he was playing with.
26-13 was a fair indication of the game, in the end, and though the Blues would be concerned with how they started, their finish certainly made up for it.
Back in Nelson, it took a Sharks penalty scrum option to change the Crusaders fortune.
From the resulting ruck, the Crusaders pilfered as only they can, the ball was shovelled out through the midfield, somehow finding its way to Sean Maitland on the wing, who somehow got through the traffic and found Sonny Bill Williams back on the inside.
After an earlier Williams break was blundered by an errant Freuen pass, there was a fair degree of relief that the pass just stuck.
From there, Dan Carter punished the Sharks infringements with a regular string of penalty goals, but the real game-sealer came from stand-in Captain Kieran Read in the 50th minute.
From a Carter kick, Michalak threw a monster pass infield to Lambie, who threw his own monster pass toward the wing, only to see the ball disappear in foreign hands. Read had seen Lambie’s pass coming from a mile out (as did I, from this side of the ditch), timed his run beautifully, and intercepted the pass like he was meant to get it all along.
Ben or Owen Franks (can anyone really tell?) scored a late try to put the game beyond any doubt, and at the end a pretty decent game themselves, the Sharks would look up to see 36-8 on the scoreboard. What had started so promisingly had somehow ended up rather lopsided against them.
Of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that both New Zealand teams would storm home in this manner. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of All Black comeback after All Black comeback after All Black bloody comeback would’ve known it was coming. Expected it even.
And where there’s life, there’s hope for the Kiwis.
Neither the Reds or Stormers will be underestimating either side in any situation next weekend, and likewise, it would take a brave punter to rule them out on these performances, too. As if it wasn’t already obvious, these Kiwis aren’t done just yet.