The Canterbury Crusaders hit top gear in the second half of their Super 14 tie against New Zealand rivals the Auckland Blues for a 33-20 home win yesterday. The Blues started strongly and went into the break trailing by one point, but the Crusaders' relentless pressure in the second period eventually told as they clinched victory, scoring three tries to the Blues' one.
The win was the perfect welcome back for captain Richie McCaw, in the starting line-up for the first time this year and playing at blindside flanker rather than his more accustomed openside role. "We were a bit rusty in the first half, it felt like we didn't play much rugby," McCaw said. "We felt if we got playing, the opportunities would come and I guess they did." Defence was a feature for both sides, but the turning point came midway through the second spell after a defensive blunder by the Blues winger Rudi Wulf that put the Crusaders on course for victory.
With a wall of opponents advancing on Wulf on his own 22metre line, the winger's long pass infield was intercepted by Ryan Crotty, the Crusaders' inside centre, for an easy try under the posts, putting his side ahead 23-15 after Dan Carter's conversion. The class of the All Blacks fly-half Carter was a crucial difference. He landed 18 points with the boot, drove the Blues back with some immaculate tactical kicking and was incisive with the ball in hand on attack.
His Auckland counterpart, Stephen Brett, also had a strong day with the boot, kicking 15 points from four penalties and a drop goal. The 16-15 half-time score in favour of the Crusaders was a fair reflection of a tight first half, with the scoreboard dominated by the kicking duel between Carter and Brett. The Blues were in charge early on but the home side scored the first try midway through the first half, with flanker George Whitelock scoring after Carter carved through the first line of defence.
After the Crusaders' second try, from Crotty's interception, his centre partner, Robbie Fruean, took the game out of the Blues' reach by powering through for Canterbury's third. Alby Matthewson, the Blues half-back, scored a consolation try with six minutes remaining, sneaking through a lumbering Crusaders defence from the breakdown. Meanwhile, the New South Wales Waratahs made heavy going of their 25-21 victory over the winless Coastal Sharks.
The Waratahs scored three tries to two but had luck on their side to keep the spirited Durban team at bay in the final stages. The Waratahs were booed by their own supporters for continually kicking for territory and not opting to run the ball and had to defend stoutly as the Sharks clawed back from 25-14 down with 30 minutes left. The Sharks had their game-winning chance with two minutes left with an overlap before Kurtley Beale knocked down Stefan Terblanche's intended pass to Ryan Kankowski with the try-line beckoning.
"Tonight we did enough to win, but the scoreboard tells a different story," said John Smit, the Sharks' Springbok captain. "Four losses in a row is hard on us and we're hurting, but we just have to keep at it." The Sharks were reduced to 13 players at one stage when the referee sent prop Jannie du Plessis and Andy Goode, the England fly-half who is at the club on an emergency loan, to the sin bin midway through the first half. While they were down on numbers, Kankowski, the No 8, scored a 50metre intercept try off a Waratahs' line-out win to hand the Sharks a surprise lead.
The Waratahs appeared to have got on top with two tries to Daniel Halangahu and Tom Carter via the television match official for the home side to lead 18-14 at half-time. Tatafu Polota-Nau stretched the Waratahs' advantage to 25-14 in the 51st minute. Adrian Jacobs dummied his way over minutes later to put the Sharks to within four points, but it was not to be. The Otago Highlanders suffered an embarrassing defeat away to the Cape Town Stormers as they finished on the wrong end of a 33-0 scoreline last night.