The Crusaders are hard enough to beat when you win the lineouts and scrums that in the modern, professional game of rugby you are just about mandated to win.
Give up that possession, however, to the South Island super-franchise and you’ll be pushing a large barrow of blubber up a very large hill.
It was a hill the Reds certainly could not scale, after giving up a lineout five metres out from Canterbury’s line and a scrum against the head five out from their own; among other things that saw them down 21-0 without actually playing that poorly against a team that kicked most everything that came their way.
“Not a vintage performance by the Crusaders, but they were quite clearly in control once they got their noses in front,” Sky Sports analyst Jeff Wilson offered.
“It was very evident that they had enough firepower to keep the Reds far enough away from them.”
Sad but true.
The Reds were on par for the first 10 minutes, until the Crusaders won said scrum against the head after a good shove by their eight and an aberration by someone within Queensland’s, who toed the ball toed their opponents’ way.
The ball went right, the ball went left, the ball went to five-eighth Fergus Burke, who went over.
After a scything tackle, strong counter-rucking and pressure by the Crusaders, they found themselves with the ball again. There followed typically tasty support play and ball handling before in-form fullback Will Jordan was over. All of a sudden it was 14-blot. The Reds had made two mistakes.
Tate McDermott was typically busy and tried to spark something, anything, by remonstrating with giant No.11 Leicester Fainga’anuku following a tackle following a mark. Commendable play – but it didn’t work.
The inevitable tide of Crusaders bodies flowed downfield and the Reds could do nowt but yield. McDermott went high on Brodie McAlister, who went low and powered over for the score.
Burke nailed his third conversion and the score was 21-3.
The Reds toddled off to the sheds down 18 points and with more chance of holding back airborne Ebola.
“We have to treasure the ball when we have it,” Reds assistant coach Jim McKay said at the break.
“We all know, everyone knows, they’re lethal off turnovers. But we’re staying in the fight, we’re proud and we’ve just got to keep going.
“Fix a few things in the second half and hopefully put some pressure on them.”
Pablo Matera, the moustachioed hard man of Argentina who looks like a hired gun from a movie about Pablo Escobar, picked up Jordan Petaia in a clean-out from a maul and dumped him on his neck.
Matera went off for 10 minutes. There have been lesser acts punted for good.
There followed a period of rugby that won’t ever find its way into one of those ‘101 Great Rugby Tries’ you could once find in VHS video stores. Ironic given there were two tries scored, one to Reds reserve hooker Richia Asiata who plunged over as good reserve hookers do, the other to reserve flanker Tom Christie after many replays on the Orangetheory big screen.
“There’s been 58 kicks in 64 minutes. Rather have ball in hand more than that,” opined Wilson, and one could only agree.
When Harry Wilson scored in the corner after quick hands from Connor Vest and Fraser McWreight, a back row playing like a back line, there could have been some life in the contest still.
Yet it was too little and much too late. The Crusaders went over again but it was not allowed. And the crowd was rendered borderline mute. For they knew their team had played like duds and effectively dialled in the win, and the rugby gods cried silent tears.
And lo did they declare: that was a bludger.
Yet the sight of Sulisi Vunivalu shaking hands with forwards and even backs with whom he’d had very little interaction with galled.
Yes, the Reds were missing a few; James O’Connor not the least. But simple dud errors against the Crusaders at home were always going to be problematic, even if the locals seemed to merely go through the motions.
The Reds did win the second half by 12-7. So there was that.
“We just lost the contact zone, really,” McDermott said at full time.
“We came out shell-shocked and if you give any team, particularly the Crusaders a 21-point head start it’s obviously not ideal.
“Really proud of how we managed to claw our way back into it and we’ll take that message going forward.”
Why the improvement?
“It was as simple as holding the ball, really. When we stuck together as a team and worked hard, put phases on phases, we looked good. It’s just about doing that for long periods of time,” McDermott said.