Second successive title
By Roger Childs
I think we all expected them to win: top of the table, highly talented from prop to fullback and in front of their adoring fans at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. But there were the appropriate warnings: beware the wounded Lions who were beaten in last year’s final by the Crusaders in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park fortress.
But we need not have worried. There were a few anxious moments in the second half when Ryan Crotty was in the sin bin for 10 minutes, but the home team always seemed to be able to roar back after the visitors scored, with wonderful combined back and forward magic, and they never really lost control of the match.
The Lions had the majority of possession and territory, and should have done better with that superiority, but the Crusaders defence was resolute especially in countering lineout drives.
They were competitive throughout and were pressing hard in the last few minutes, but the die had long been cast and the Crusaders were worthy winners 37-18, and worthy champions for the second year running.
So hats off and throw them in the air, for this superbly coached side which has performed up to and beyond expectations.
Why are the Crusaders so good?
Scott Robertson is an outstanding coach who gives the lead to his players in practice and lets them do the talking on the field.
It was interesting to see the contrast in styles between the finalists when the TV showed the two dressing rooms at half time.
- In the Lions’ den the coach was up front with the white board and pen gesticulating and agitating for an improved second half performance.
- Meanwhile in the Crusaders camp the players stood around the little general Richie Mo’unga who spoke quietly to the group.
The Crusaders are heirs to the wonderful Canterbury culture which is the model for the rugby world. Wives, partners and children are part of this, and it was delightful to see them on the hallowed turf after the match ended.
There was a lovely sight a few weeks ago, when Wyatt Crockett had the stadium named after him for the night he played his 200th Super Rugby game. Crockett came out first with his two small children dressed in Crusaders gear and kissed his wife before heading out to the middle.
On the field: passion, enthusiasm, cooperation
This is a team that always wants to win and are almost prepared to die in the attempt. They do make a few mistakes, but they shake these off and get on with the next moves. There are no recriminations.
They play matches with a clear idea of the game plan with every man knowing his roles and conscientious of what other players are likely to do. Their level of fitness is very high and this enables players to be in the right places to support the ball carrier and ensure that breaks are turned into tries.
- The defence is very solid across the park and tacklers are determined to try and prevent opponents getting over the advantage line.
- The forward pack is strong and in the set pieces rarely lose a lineout or scrum. Not surprisingly most of them are in the All Blacks.
- They are quick to the breakdown and Matt Todd is the best exponent of the turnover in the country.
- At half back Bryn Hall is one of the fastest passers around. This has been crucial to the team’s success. Getting quick ball means the talented first five, Richie Mo’unga, gets an armchair ride and is able to focus on setting up his outsides or weaving his own magic.
- All the backs are fit and fast, and some like George Bridge and Mo’unga are very tricky runners who are as slippery as eels for would-be tacklers.
- There is a lot of doubling around in backline movements and this often creates the extra man.
Man of the match and season
Richie Mo’unga is a modest and polite young man with extraordinary rugby talent. Last night his full range of skills were on show.
- Excellent passing to set his backline away.
- Judicious kicking for the line or for players to race on to. There were a couple of aimless kicks down field last night and Richie knew.
- Accurate goal kicking: he scored 17 points in last’s night’s victory.
- Solid tackling.
- Unexpected magic – in the middle of the first half he took a high kick among a group of players, slipped out of two or three tackles and raced down field to set up a try.
He has been the best first five all year and outplayed his more illustrious opposite, Beauden Barrett, in last week’s semi final.
Barrett will play the first test of the Four Nations competition, but don’t be surprised if Mo’unga features later in the series.
No doubt the coaching team, players, families and fans celebrated into the wee small hours. They deserved to.
Crusaders, the nation salutes you!