What a try! But one thing’s for sure, this match ain’t over yet. And what’s more the Blues were very lucky with that TMO call. Better get that into a tweet!
I should’ve had loads of time to get that done. Reiko Ioane’s 55th minute try was relatively central so I never gave the execution of the conversion so much as a thought, especially as I had been witness to some extremely polished place kicking from Otere Black since I adopted the Blues as my team for Super Rugby Aotearoa.
So there I was, looking down at my phone to tweet my comment when…
“THE KICK’S CHARGED!!!”
Wait - the which was what now?
Taking a conversion close to the sticks has developed into something of an art form over the years; most kickers have a shortened version of their routine devised to take them safely before an opponent dares to try and block them. The styles all vary to a degree, but one thing they all seem to have in common...once the kicker has taken the initial steps back from the ball and stops, there is no further motion backwards.
Black did not do that here and in the time it took to creep back one more step, Braydon Ennor, who was so fired up at this stage he was ready to throw himself at anything be it onrushing Blues or even streakers, got there in time to deny the extra points.
I was reminded of Johnny Sexton’s missed penalty against the All Blacks in 2013. Given a perfect opportunity to push the lead to 8 points, he just couldn’t get it done, and against this particular opposition, everyone knows that could be costly with so much time left on the clock.
So there I was, back looking at my phone to fashion that Sexton reference into a tweet when…
“...THE CRUSADERS HAVE TAKEN THE KICK QUICKLY…”
You’ve gotta be kidding me...
This time even Sky Sports New Zealand were caught on the hop. By the time their producer switched from a replay of Ioane’s finish back to the live action, Richie Mo’unga was already crashing into the Blues’ 22. I assumed he had dinked a kick 10m forward to get it batted down to him by a lock, but it turned out he grubbered it to himself and if this was unbeknownst to his own team-mates, their reaction was lightning fast and having had little or no time to celebrate their try, the Blues were suddenly desperately defending their own line.
On this occasion they just about weathered the storm as first a Bryn Hall knockon and then a stolen lineout allowed them to clear, but one thing was for sure - as high as the Blues had raised the bar to build this lead, the Crusaders had plenty of experience to draw on to raise it even higher and there was a ton of work to be done to bring it home.
And on my second watch of this classic encounter, it looked as though the visitor’s biggest failing on the day was actually missed opportunities in the first half to make that gap even wider.
This match was a TV network’s dream to promote - it sold itself. Two unbeaten teams; one the 10-time and reigning champions, the other not having tasted glory since 2003 but showing definite signs of a renaissance. First place on the Super Rugby Aotearoa table at the half way stage on the line. The Crusaders on a long winning streak at home, and the Auckland based franchise hadn’t won in Christchurch since 2004.
Yet right from the kick off you could see the Blues came to play. They put the first home possession under ferocious pressure, enough for a pass to go straight to winger Mark Telea at halfway. Then up go the high kicks. It was definitely an occasion for challenging the full backs, and the visitors were able to force an attacking lineout.
What followed was clearly a training ground move - Black stabbed one through deep into the 22 rugby league style for chasers to gather but unfortunately their timing was off by a fraction - that was a chance missed as the home side were able to clear by way of an offside penalty.
Luckily they were able to make the most of their next visit to that end of the park, although it took a bit of luck as Codie Taylor’s dart on his own 5m line was judged crooked which handed the Blues a golden chance. First, wunderkind Hoskins Sotutu brought it over the line only to be held up but on the second attempt, a glorious miss pass from Black found Telea who went over in the corner, and with the odds against the place kicker this time, the outhalf was able to make it look easy and just like that it was 7-0.
But was that going to be enough?
Minutes later Telea was back on the ball and tore through an uncharacteristic gap in the Crusader’s defence to get back into the 22, but in their haste to make the most out of it a Sotutu pass went straight into touch.
Another missed chance was right at the end of the first half, when they won a penalty after the hooter sounded yet Beauden Barrett chose to put the ball dead. They were in their own half but I thought on this day they needed to back themselves to make the most out of an attacking lineout in opposition territory.
Meanwhile on the other side of the ball the Blues defence was doing reasonably well, holding the reigning champs to just the six first half points. They were super competitive at the breakdown thanks to their excellent back row of Ioane, Papalii and Sotutu, but the flip side of that was a rake of penalties going against them. You can make a case that against a quality team like this risks had to be taken but the new refereeing interpretations were not going in their favour.
So there we were at half time with the pretenders to the Aotearoa throne leading by a point. The opening exchanges of the second half were as tense as expected with the teams exchanging penalties before what looked to all intents and purposes as the defining decision of the match coming from the officials at the 52 minute mark.
High kicks were pretty much the order of the day throughout, and this time when one from Black came down around the Crusaders’ 22, a player from each side went up to catch, it came off them and headed for the line before two more players went to gather before it went over the line to be dotted down.
Earlier on, Richie Mo’unga had tried to get the most out of a penalty touchfinder only for it to be called dead. I thought it was worth at least a quick check from the TMO but that didn’t happen. On this occasion, all of the officials got involved and the replays were looked at several times. To me it looked clear and obvious that Blues centre Harry Plummer had been the last to touch it before it crossed the line, meaning the result should have been a 5m scrum to the defence.
Yet the decision was for the Blues to get the put in, so the only question was whether they would squander yet another gift. When a penalty was awarded at the scrum, Sotutu seized the moment by taking a quick tap to force another penalty advantage and with the Saders scrambling on their try line, it was shipped out wide where Black found another great miss pass that put Reiko Ioana through for a well deserved score.
I’ve already described what happened next - one the Blues had repelled the quick restart it was imperative that they avoid any mistakes for the rest of the match. The home side were more than willing to give them every opportunity to do just that and moments after planting a perfect touch finder into their territory, Beauden Barrett had another go only for it to go out on the full bringing the lineout all the way back to his own 22.
Well Scott Robertson’s charges were so fired up at this stage that there was no stopping them, though it took the try of the match to get them over the line. While it took a miss pass to bring about both Blues tries, here the home side needed two absolute belters, first from Mo’unga threading the needle to find Bridge before the winger fired one back inside to the wide open Mitchell Drummond to make the finish look easy. Just like that Mo’unga is slotting over the extras and his side are ahead for the first time.
Not long after the restart a routine enough bout of kick tennis was ruined by Telea needlessly, yet clearly, stepping in the line of a chaser (if anything he was actually nudged towards the ball carrier!) to force a penalty that put them back in the Blues 22 - from there they milked another three points stretching the lead to four.
For pretty much that entire final quarter, nothing was going right for them. Remember when Otere Black had stabbed a kick into the opposing 22 to no avail in the early stages? Well when the Crusaders did similar towards the end, it went the other way, sitting up awkwardly for Beauden who eventually could do nothing else but get bundled into touch.
They almost got a hand to the the lineout but instead it was knocked on and from the ensuing scrum, they battered the line with 9 phases before Mo’unga, easily man of the match as far as I was concerned, fooled the entire defensive line into thinking another miss pass was coming only this time, it was a simpler ball to superstar in the making (yet incredibly on the bench) Will Jordan running a perfect line and boom - the scoreline looked way more comfortable than it should have done.
So not only were the Blues denied victory but also a losing BP which would have at least been some comfort. They now sit 6 points behind the Crusaders and must at least narrow that gap before the final match of the tournament when these two meet again at Eden Park.
Despite their inability to push home their hard-earned advantage on this day, I wouldn't bet against them staying in the hunt until then, although they are bound to be tested next week when Beauden gets to return to his former home the "Caketin" to play the Hurricanes, who themselves will be eyeing an opportunity to climb up the ladder.
From a personal standpoint, I have thoroughly enjoyed getting my match writeup hat back on, even if it is to be a while before my preferred boys in blue take to the pitch. As much as I enjoy watching all rugby, choosing a team and focusing on their match week in week out is what I have always preferred doing.
And after all the uncertainty we have had to endure so far this year, I doubt there could have been a better competition to get back into "pre-season training" when it comes to harpin' on rugby. The standard in this competition has been incredible, and I can't help but think that new national team coach Ian Foster must be chomping at the bit to get these players into black jerseys for some test rugby before too long. JLP
PS - Subscribe to our podcast feed and keep an eye out for this week's episode I chatted to John Keenan of The Rugby Gods Podcast about the overall Super Rugby Aotearoa competition - he gives some good insights into all five teams and what could happen over the second half.