Six-time Crusaders DHL Super Rugby Pacific winning coach Scott Robertson had his players attack the perceived area of Blues strength, the lineout, to secure his side’s 21–7 victory over a shell-shocked Blues side at Eden Park on Saturday.
It was as if he took a leaf out of Sun Tzu’s military manual The Art of War. He attacked his enemy’s strength, finishing with nine lineout steals, six of them in the first half.
The Crusaders made such a mess of the Blues’ throws, the home side hardly fired a shot in the face of the advantages the Crusaders created for themselves.
All Blacks locks Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett and No8 Cullen Grace contested everything knocking the Blues off their game.
Then, when the Blues finally scored to get themselves back in the game with a try to halfback Finlay Christie with 22 minutes left, they switched to work on the Blues’ scrum, gaining a penalty for first five-eighths Richie Mo’unga to land a killer blow from 45metres.
Indiscipline, when it was least helpful, saw the Crusaders rub salt in the wound as Argentine flanker Pablo Matera chose the final to reveal his kicking skills by slipping a grubber kick to the line where wing Sevu Reece was able to run in and grab the unsecured ball to score.
The champions deserved their triumph. They dominated the contest throughout and left the home crowd stunned into quietness for much of the game.
Without possession for long periods, the Blues were forced to make 120 tackles to 46, missing 16, which also gave the Crusaders momentum. The final count saw them forced to make 216 tackles to 141.
They ensured midfield men Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane had no chance or room to run, first five-eighths Beauden Barrett was similarly shut down, and they were committed into scrambling for chances.
In the game they were forced to make 216 tackles to 141
The Crusaders approach paid dividends just before the break when wing Leicester Fainga’anuku made the most effective of several bullocking runs he made throughout the half. He was held up on one occasion, and the defence got to him again, but as the ball came clear halfback Bryn Hall put it over the line in a flash to give the Crusaders a 13-0 lead.
Mo’unga feasted on the wealth of possession, running with his usual effect, one early run into wide open space creating a chance but hooker Codie Taylor wasn’t able to hold a pass and the breakout came to an end.
His kicking was precise, a decided asset in the wet conditions while the passing variations employed Fainga’nuku’s strength and fullback Will Jordan’s speed. Somehow, the Blues managed to scramble, none more than when a desperate Taylor was bundled out in the corner.
Problems continued for the Blues at the lineout in the second half and while Mo’unga landed another penalty goal, the Crusaders couldn’t break the defence again.
That paid off for the Blues after an inspirational break by replacement flanker Dalton Papalii, back from an appendix operation two weeks ago. While it didn’t directly lead to a try, it allowed the Blues to recover some composure and when a scrum was forced five metres out from the Crusaders line, halfback Finlay Christie struck.
He tackled Grace as he attempted to run from the base. He dropped the ball and Christie seized in a flash and scored in the 58th minute.
But that was to be it as the Blues became the latest side to suffer at the hands of the Crusaders in a final. They were out-gunned and out-thought.