How clinical Crusaders scaled heights to leave Blues down and out

Patrick McKendry
Source: 1News

The party in the Crusaders dressing room was really starting to get going by the time head coach Scott Robertson was raking over the coals of yet another Super Rugby title victory – his sixth as a head coach and his franchise’s 13th. By the sounds of things they never get old.

The Crusaders celebrate their Super Rugby Pacific victory over the Blues at Eden Park - their 13th championship.

Addressing the media just down the corridor from where his players were giving full vent to their emotions, Robertson said his theme for his team in 2022 could be boiled down to the importance of stepping up. In other words, the imperative of constant improvement and the knowledge that one could always dig a little deeper.

“Part of the season we weren’t [a step ahead],” Robertson said. “But when we needed to be we were.”

The Crusaders had their wobbles in losing three round-robin matches, including to the Blues in Christchurch, but their final 21-7 victory at Eden Park on Saturday night highlighted why they have been so successful for so long under Robertson, who has never failed to win a title every year since he started in 2017.

They do step up, they do improve, and they do dig deeper. In destroying the Blues lineout – the home side lost 10 on their own throw, an unacceptably high number - and squeezing their scrum and breakdown, the Crusaders attempted to cut off the Blues’ possession at source and they did better than they could have possibly imagined.

With Crusaders skipper Scott Barrett and his second-row partner Sam Whitelock (who played with a broken thumb) in the ascendant, a front row of Oli Jager, Codie Taylor and George Bower who were far more accurate than their counterparts and No.10 Richie Mo’unga calmly navigating the team, the visitors quickly achieved dominance.

In fact, one of Mo’unga’s only missteps came as he stepped up on to the stage after the final whistle to claim his winner’s medal. He slipped but quickly regained his balance. Of course he did.

Read more: Champion Crusaders make Blues dance to Richie Mo'unga's beat

Second-five David Havili had his game of the year in a defensive masterclass, with new All Black Leicester Fainga’anuku too hot to handle on the left wing.

With little quality ball, Blues playmakers Beauden Barrett and Stephen Perofeta must have felt like they were trapped in a vice.

Blues skipper Barrett said: “They certainly had a strategy to sort us out at set piece time, or put us under pressure, and spoil our flow and tempo that we like to play. It was frustrating. We couldn’t get into our game and whenever we did get going it wasn’t on our terms. We were forced to make some stuff up. You have to give them credit. Their defence was impressive.”

“They got up well,” Blues coach Leon MacDonald said of the Crusaders’ lineout tactics. “It was like they had our playbook. They were reading our play and causing a lot of trouble there. We tried variations but were unable to get quality ball to launch off. The scrum was similar too, really.

“We were living off scraps and unable to apply positive pressure through our kicking game.”

Crusaders captain Scott Barrett, who reflected on the victory alongside Robertson, said: “Finals footy is about pressure and that’s something we talked about this week, whether we could pressure them.

"Their scrum has been dominant at times throughout the season. We had to muscle up there and the lineout, we saw a few opportunities there if we could just get up in the air with the greasy ball we could accumulate some pressure and we did that pretty well.”

David Havili gets the party started in the Crusaders' dressing room at Eden Park.

The Crusaders exposed a few of the Blues’ forwards – most of whom have never had to deal with that type of expectation and pressure in front of a capacity crowd. And for all the Blues' resilience and new cutting edge in terms of attack this year, they had never come across this sort of accuracy - and commitment for that matter.

The Blues were narrow favourites because of home advantage and their vast improvements this year in building a 14-game winning streak, but they never looked likely once the Crusaders built a 13-0 lead via Bryn Hall’s converted try at the end of the first half, and Mo’unga’s dropped goal and penalty.

Finlay Christie’s converted try, which brought the Blues back 16-7, gave his side and the majority of the crowd hope, but Sevu Reece’s late opportunist score, which came via Pablo Matera’s sublime left-foot grubber kick, killed off any hopes of a comeback.

“It’s special on the Garden,” Robertson said. “It’s very hard for any team to win here against the All Blacks or the Blues. It’s a pretty special place and we had to go to a high level, to step up, if we wanted to do it and we did that.”

In an interview with Sky afterwards, Mo’unga was asked which of the six titles he’s won was the sweetest. “The next one,” he replied.

Scott Barrett said: “In the off-season, Razor gets his mind to work and it’s a beautiful mind. I’m sure he’ll be thinking up plans for next season and how we can get better.”

They’re not done yet.