Crusaders rugby is built on solid set piece, taking points when they’re up the right end, and counter-attacking with the alacrity and fun of professional performers.
Throw in a defence in equal parts bruising and desperate, deft tactical kicking and a team laden with All Blacks (and the half-mad captain of Argentina) and it’s a heady combination.
Too heady for the Brumbies on Friday night in Canberra, with the Crusaders too smart, too precise and just flat-out too good in notching a 37-26 victory at GIO Stadium.
Will Jordan and Richie Mo’unga kicked with smarts and precision; they used the field like a chess board. Ethan Blackadder in the 7 was ‘everywhere’, as they say. Codie Taylor was too – for the first half, anyway.
In finals-like intensity befitting a Super Rugby Pacific heavyweight stoush, the Crusaders were all structure, right options, pick and drive, pressure. So much pressure.
The Crusaders have long been the best in Super Rugby because they pile it on and make teams pay. They rattled the Brumbies, with even the home team’s patented rolling maul largely countered.
And while the Brumbies attacked in the last 10 minutes and threatened to get within a try with seconds to play, in reality, for the most part, you were watching and wondering how a fortnight ago the Waratahs had even come close.
“The last few weeks we’ve been backed into a corner,” Crusaders captain Scott Barrett told Stan Sport after the match. “The Blues tipped us up, the Tahs as well … we didn’t turn up in the physical areas.
“Last couple of weeks we’ve dug a little deeper in our preparation… coming here to Canberra, Brumbies near [the] top of the table, we knew we had to front.”
The Brumbies opened the scoring in the fifth minute when No.12 Irae Simone reached out and appeared to knock on, only for the slow motion replay to indicate the ball had been grounded, at least for the microsecond the Brumbies needed.
The Crusaders hit back – it’s what they do. And they kept on hitting. They owned the next 35 minutes, running right, then to the middle. There was a charge-down close out and the dogs of war bombed in and equalised through Taylor. Mo’unga’s conversion made it 7-5.
There was a ‘finals’ feel to the fixture from the outset. Both defences rushed their opponents. Attacks hit the gain line right on it. Errors were punished on counter – that, too, is just what the Crusaders do.
Taylor (he’s the hooker, mind) grubbered through the Brumbies’ line, Sevu Reece chased, and was rewarded with a tangential bounce that beat Andy Muirhead like Shane Warne had ripped one.
In the process, Reece became Super Rugby’s fastest ever player to 40 tries, his 50 games beating Joe Roff’s previous record of 53.
In the 20th minute the Crusaders ripped off a driving maul that went 20 metres towards the middle of the park. The Brumbies somehow found the ball, Rod Iona hit a hole and bolted midfield. Banks and Muirhead had their moments. It was good attack, patient.
The Crusaders ripped it free. They were doing everything possible to avoid the home team’s weapon: the rolling, driving maul from 10 metres out.
From there, Brumbies’ errors compounded. Four penalties in a row and the Crusaders ‘took the points’ in front of goal as the Brumbies had in Hamilton the week before.
A penalty 30 out got the crowd going, for they knew what was coming: a kick down the line by Banks. Lineout 15 out. Honey time.
And then they stuffed it up.
Twice more the Crusaders ripped the ball free in the first half. The Brumbies could get no momentum. Their basics were poor.
Mo’unga nailed another penalty goal, the fruits of pressure, efficiency and skilful, fast counter-attack: it was 23-5 at half-time, and the crowd was borderline mute.
“We’re creating opportunities – we can’t finish them,” a frustrated Banks told Stan Sport at half-time.
“We’re getting to the A Zone, but letting off the pressure. They’re a tough team and they’re going to run from anywhere. It’s about keeping the pressure on them.”
They couldn’t do it. Not for long enough, anyway.
The Brumbies missed the punch and X-factor of Rob Valetini. Noah Lolesio was out. Len Ikitau didn’t run in the first half, and neither Banks nor either of the wingers could compensate much. Roff had retired over 20 years previously.
The second half was more competitive. Simone ran a hard and fine line and scored adjacent to the posts. It was the first time they’d been within 20 metres of the Crusaders’ line in 40 minutes.
Pablo Matera belted Darcy Swain with his shoulder and flapping condor arms. Cadeyrn Neville won a defensive lineout and a cheer in the Mal Meninga Stand for his troubles, before being replaced by Nick Frost.
The cheers wouldn’t last long as the Crusaders scored through halfback Bryn Hall. Mo’unga drilled the conversion; a golden boot all night. It was 30-12. It wasn’t men against boys. It was more like All Blacks against Wallabies.
Brumbies didn’t give up, though. Their structures are strong, too. Folau Fainga’a crashed over. An 11-point buffer with 20 minutes to play.
But Jordan scored and Mo’unga shelled peas with another dead-eye kick; suddenly, the margin was 18 again.
Jordan went left, throwing a lazy ball that Wright anticipated perfectly and tore away with: running 50, turning Mo’unga and doing plenty. Eleven points again, and one of the tries of the season.
Then, the Brumbies won a penalty 60 metres out. The crowd got the “Brumbies” chant going. Five minutes to go. They couldn’t, could they?
Banks busted them! Frost came hard. Penalty advantage. Right in their wheelhouse – it was five-metre lineout time.
It was no good. But Simone ran a hole again! Somehow, though the Crusaders shut them down. And that, effectively, was that.
Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa tried to put a positive spin on a game that was lost after a bumbling 40 minutes.
“Definitely loved the heart at the end. But every time we got down their end we made too many errors,” he said on Stan Sport.
“Handling errors. At the set piece, at lineout. Carries into the A Zone including myself.
“You can’t give a good side like the Crusaders that much ball.”