Crusaders hit top spot
April 17, 2010
Bryan Habana celebrates the Stormers' opener, the team try of the season © Getty Images
The Crusaders laid what could be a temporary claim to the top spot in the Super 14 with a thumping 43-6 victory over the Cheetahs in Christchurch.
Missing star pivot Dan Carter through a hip injury, halfback Andy Ellis (concussion) and with winger Zac Guildford on the bench, the Crusaders hardly missed a beat as they strolled to a 26-6 half-time lead. Four first-half tries secured the bonus point early for the Crusaders, after elusive halfback Kahn Fotuali'i opened the scoring in the 10th minute with a jinking 40m run which caught the Cheetahs defence napping.
The South Africans stayed in touch through a Riaan Viljoen penalty, but the Crusaders' impressive scrum, ball retention and willingness to move the ball wide stretched the South Africans constantly. The Crusaders forward pack also had a fresh look about it, Ben Franks starting at tighthead prop ahead of brother Owen, while Sam Whitelock succeeded All Black Brad Thorn at lock, and All Blacks captain Richie McCaw returned to more familiar territory on the openside flank.
No 8 Thomas Waldrom celebrated his return to the starting line-up after an ankle sprain with a two-try haul, both coming in the last five minutes before halftime on the back of some superb Crusaders forward play.
The Cheetahs came out with renewed vigour in the second spell, winger Jongi Nokwe looking dangerous on the rare occasions he managed to find himself in space with ball in hand. The South Africans attacked the Crusaders line in the closing minutes, but could find no way through their well-organised defence, and faced the constant threat of a counter-attack as the Crusaders ran with pace and confidence.
Second-half tries to Sean Maitland, Ben Franks and replacement wing Guildford set the seal on a comprehensive win. Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske had named a young side with a raft of changes and a new halves combination after last week's 15-61 hiding to the Brumbies in Canberra, but they never looked capable of challenging the Crusaders as they eased to their seventh win of the Super 14 season. The Crusaders now face a difficult three weeks on the road, with games against the Force in Perth, the Stormers in Cape Town and the Bulls in Pretoria.
In Saturday's opening game, the Blues kept their semi-final hopes alive with a 38-17 victory over the Brumbies in Canberra where winger Joe Rokocoko stepped up his bid for an All Blacks recall with a three-try haul.
It saw a confident Blues outfit bounce back from a loss to the high-flying Stormers twhile the result brought the Force back to earth with a thud after back-to-back wins over the Stormers and Highlanders, their only two successes of a tough season. The Blues scored six tries to two, and led 38-3 with three minutes remaining, before a late try from Wallabies flanker David Pocock then a penalty try from referee Keith Brown on the full-time siren when Stephen Brett was penalised for lazy running.
The All Blacks coaches admitted yesterday that Rokocoko's form had already caught their eye this season, the Fijian flyer kept his name in lights with the Blues' opening two tries as they took control with a 19-3 half-time lead at Eden Park. Two quick tries in five minutes after halftime saw the Blues put the match beyond doubt as the Force had chances but couldn't finish.
The Sharks survived a late onslaught from the winless Lions to run out 32-28 at Ellis Park.
A terrible start did the damage for the Johannesburg outfit, who leaked three tries in the opening 25 minutes to trail 19-6, but they fought back into it and gave the Natal side a scare. Herkie Kruger put Dick Muir's side into an early lead, but JP Pietersen, Andy Goode and Stefan Terblanche combined to send Patrick Lambie down the right to score.
England fly-half Goode sent Ndungane over with a delightful pass, before John Smit set fellow Springbok Bismarck du Plessis up for an all front row effort. Two swift tries from Michael Killian, a long range effort, and Franco van der Merwe who brought the Lions back into the match.
Jacques Botes restored the Sharks' lead early in the second half with a bonus point clinching try, Ruan Pienaar converted before he exchanged penalties with Kruger. Derick Minnie's score made for a close finish, but the Lions couldn't get that elusive win.
In the opening game of the weekend, the clinical Stormers thrashed the Chiefs 49-15 in Hamilton on Friday night to all but end the hosts' chances of reaching the play-offs this season. The Chiefs threw everything at the Stormers at times but their near-impenetrable defence held firm, giving them the platform to launch raid after raid and secure a six-tries-to-two victory, including one of the tries of the season so far. The Stormers join the Bulls on top of the standings, at least temporarily.
On two early occasions the Stormers were denied tries and had to settle for three points instead, the first bombed through a forward pop-up pass right at the line and the second ruined by an obstruction. The Chiefs then earned some field position and three points of their own but the Stormers made no mistake on their next trip to the danger zone. Fullback Gio Aplon did well under pressure in his own 22 to retain possession and start the thrilling move, which featured two separate line breaks by Jaque Fourie and most of the Stormers' pack, as the ball was juggled, off-loaded, passed and flicked downfield. The Chiefs eventually effected a tackle near their own line but the ball was passed out to an unmarked Bryan Habana on the left for the easiest touch down of his career.
Duane Vermeulen grabbed a second that was expertly constructed by the slippery Aplon, who returned a poor clearing kick and cut through the line to set up the big No.8 out wide.
The Chiefs then got some good ball and tried everything to break down the Stormers' brutal defence. They failed to do so until the shadow of half time, when Chiefs No.8 Sione Lauaki, who'd had an error-riddled first half, made amends with a darting run off the back of a back-wheeling scrum and offloaded expertly to Tanerau Latimer under the posts.
A try right on half time would usually give that team a lift but it was the Stormers who lifted a gear when they returned from the break. Tiaan Liebenberg scored with a nice assist from Habana and giant wing Sireli Naqelevuki crossed soon after. The excellent Andries Bekker, who was too big and too strong to handle all night, added another for the Stormers after a 30-metre rolling maul put the forwards within range.
Chiefs fullback Tim Nanai-Williams, a star in a losing side, finished well in the corner to give the home fans something to cheer about, but Stormers replacement Deon Fourie capitalised on a turnover to crash over and complete the rout.
In the Friday's second game, the Hurricanes breathed life into their campaign by denting the hopes of the Brumbies with a 23-13 win in Canberra. A 71st minute try to flanker Victor Vito sealed the Hurricanes first victory since round three against the Lions - and extended their winning sequence to four matches over the two-time Super Rugby champions. Vito picked up a loose ball on and strolled from the 22-metre line under the posts as the Brumbies appealed in vain for a knock on after Tamati Ellison lost the ball when tackled.
The Hurricanes' triumph -- despite spending half the opening period a man down -- provisionally improves them from ninth to seventh on the table with 22 points. In contrast the end of the Brumbies' eight-match winning streak at Canberra Stadium leaves them in a holding pattern in sixth. The home side held a slender 5-3 advantage at the end of a fractured first half dominated by the whistle of South African referee Jonathan Kaplan -- ultimately an unsatisfactory lead given their glut of possession and the Hurricanes' ill discipline.
In the only encouraging sign for the Hurricanes, they at least managed to limit the damage inflicted by losing two players to the sinbin inside the opening 30 minutes. Kaplan, who had not issued a yellow card in the competition leading into the 10th round encounter, quickly lost patience with the Hurricanes' sequence of early infringements. Third choice openside flanker Nick Croswell, deputising for expectant father Scott Waldrom and an ill Karl Lowe, was the first to incur Kaplan's wrath when he was sinbinned for an indiscretion at the breakdown.
The Hurricanes muscled up admirably when the pack was shorthanded, though the Brumbies, blessed with 77 per cent of possession and a territorial advantage, were guilty of squandering those gains with poor handling, a crabbing backline and errant kicking from Matt Giteau. Scrum-half Tyson Keats was the second Hurricanes player to irritate Kaplan when he saw yellow in the 28th minute for another breakdown penalty.
Finally the Brumbies were able to profit from their numerical advantage when Keat's opposite Patrick Phibbs dived over as his scrum zeroed in on a pushover try in the 33rd minute. Giteau's off night with the boot extended to his place kicking as he pushed the conversion wide while Aaron Cruden's three-pointer before the hooter provided a timely boost for an undermanned team confined to defensive duties.
Buoyed by still being in the contest at the turn, the Hurricanes took the lead via Cruden's boot and extended their lead in the 50th minute when Conrad Smith polished off a rare example of incisive back play after Hosea Gear broke the line before Ma'a Nonu fed Cory Jane, whose clever flick pass to Tamati Ellison enabled the wing to link with the All Black centre, who was unstoppable from close range.
Cruden added the angled conversion to give the Hurricanes a 13-5 buffer before Giteau atoned for a patchy return to the playmaking role when he dived over in Nonu's after the Hurricanes soaked up 11 phases. Kaplan eventually tired of the Brumbies' tactics at the breakdown in the 65th minute when reserve hooker Huia Edmonds was sinbinned, enabling Cruden to push the Hurricanes out to 16-10 before Giteau finally raised the flags with his fourth attempt.
Meanwhile, Vito faces an anxious wait to see whether he will face censure after his stiff arm tackle concussed Mark Chisholm as the lock ploughed to the try line in the 16th minute. The Wallaby appeared to be out before he hit the ground after he ducked towards the line. Kaplan and his assistants took to action but Vito's hit may be yet be examined by the match reviewer.