Marshall leads Crusaders fightback
March 18, 2000

Defending Super 12 champions the Canterbury Crusaders came back from a 16-3 half-time deficit to maintain their unbeaten record with a 27-19 win against the Queensland Reds at Ballymore.

The victory has kept the Crusaders on track to defend their title, but for Queensland, their third loss in succession has presented them with an almost impossible task to make the semi-finals. Even with most of their Wallaby contingent expected to return from injury next week and another four home games in succession, the Reds' season looks doomed.

The Reds won enough ball to win two games, but a two-to-one advantage in the rucks and mauls was still not enough to bring any joy to the Ballymore crowd.

The Crusaders were generally subdued in the first half by the enthusiastic Reds, playing their first game at home, but it was the experienced halves duo of Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens who put their hand up in the second-half. The pair started to dominate behind a champion pack, superbly led by All Black hopeful Todd Blackadder.

It wasn't a pretty first half with both sides guilty of poor handling, due to a combination of solid defence and heavy dew, but Queensland deserved their 16-3 half-time lead having the better of the attacking options.

Queensland opened the scoring in the fifth minute with a penalty to Shane Drahm. It was a Jeckyll and Hyde performance by Drahm, whose kicking for goal was superb, but his handling and option taking often put Queensland under pressure.

The Reds dominated possession in the opening stages, with the Crusaders not having their first real taste of the ball until the 15th minute. Five-eighth Andrew Mehrtens equalised for the Crusaders soon after and then had a chance to put his side ahead, but had a rare miss.

Both sides then struggled to dominate and it was left to Queensland fullback Chris Latham to bring the crowd alive in the 26th minute. Latham surprised the Crusaders defence by taking a quick tap after marking the ball and charged 50m downfield before linking with David Wilson. The Crusaders were penalised from the ensuing breakdown and Drahm edged his side ahead with his second penalty.

He landed a third in the 37th minute to give for a 9-3 score and it looked like the Reds would take this score into half-time. However, Reds inside-centre Elton Flatley scooped up a Canterbury error and made a 40m break down the line. With two unmarked team-mates screaming on the inside, Flatley chose to take the defence on and was halted with a try beckoning.

The Reds were still in a try-scoring position feeding the scrum, but lost the feed, only to win it back again on a Canterbury infringement. Flanker David Wilson was cut down just short of the line, but the Reds continued to push the ball wide for Latham to slice through to score with Drahm slotting the conversion.

Queensland looked well placed to finally open their Super 12 account with a strong start after the break, but an intercept try to Crusaders halfback Marshall after 49 minutes signalled the end for the Reds.

Marshall grasped an attempted inside-pass from Drahm on Canterbury's 22 and bolted the length the field, even managing to keep Wallaby speedster Ben Tune at bay, and put his side back in the game with a try under the posts.

Three minutes later, Mehrtens capitalised on a fumble by Drahm in midfield, with his break leading to a try to No.8 Ron Cribb. Mehrtens converted and the Crusaders had snatched a 17-16 lead.

Drahm put the Reds ahead 19-17 in the 60th minute with his fourth penalty, but Mehrtens kept the Crusaders' nose 20-19 in front with a penalty in the 61st minute. Drahm had a chance to put Queensland ahead with just over 10 minutes to go, but his wayward attempt suggested his confidence from the first half had evaporated.

By this time, the Crusaders' had a strong hold of the game and a blistering 50m break by Caleb Ralph led to fullback Leon MacDonald's match-winning try with less than 10 minutes to go. Ralph should have crossed one minute later, but disappointingly watched as the ball bounced out of his hand as he dived over the line.

The Crusaders finished with a flourish, and it was only a superb tackle by Latham that denied replacement Marika Vunibaka a try on full-time. Latham's determination at so late a stage was commendable as he managed to slam into the PA system and suffered a deep gash to his lower leg. It was initially thought he may have broken his leg.

CANTERBURY CRUSADERS 27 (Justin Marshall, Ron Cribb, Leon MacDonald tries; Andrew Mehrtens 3 conv, 2 pen) d QUEENSLAND REDS 19 (Chris Latham try; Shane Drahm 1 conv, 4 pens).

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