Super Rugby showcase lives up to billing
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
March 27, 2011
Crusaders centre Sonny Bill Williams was one of the star performers at Twickenham © Getty Images
This was not Super Rugby. This was sensational rugby.
The first Super Rugby fixture staged in the northern hemisphere proved to be a superb advert for the game with both The Crusaders and The Sharks playing their part in a thrilling contest played out in front of a bumper crowd of 35,094 fans at Twickenham.
There had been concern in some quarters about the price of tickets for the hastily-arranged match that was switched to England's HQ after the recent 6.3 magnitude earthquake rendered the Crusaders' home stadium and much of Christchurch a no-go area. But there will have been little complaint from those who bore witness to nine tries, a feast of running rugby, a bounty of big hits and more than a touch of class as the Crusaders powered to a 44-28 triumph.
Critics of the competition may well point to the high-scoring nature of the contest and the odd lapse in defence but make no mistake - this was a game of incredibly high standard played at a lung-bursting pace. The enthralling contest was a credit not only to the two sides involved but the competition as a whole with the players' ability to make such breath-taking rugby appear so easy adding to the allure. If the Aviva Premiership had not chosen this weekend to produce a host of exciting games you would fear for that league's profile but that is not to say that there is nothing for Europe's finest to learn from their southern rivals - far from it.
If the Crusaders continue to play like this then they will happily become a touring side full time. With the sun on their backs, a firm pitch under foot and hardly a breath of wind they exploded into life with fly-half Dan Carter offering up his latest playmaking masterclass and centre Sonny Bill Williams producing a mesmerising blend of power, pace and skill. These were not the brutally efficient and victorious All Blacks that graced TW1 in November, shrouded in the autumnal gloom and weary from a long season. They were fresh and insatiable, energised by the Spring sunshine and desperate to impress. On this showing you sense England boss Martin Johnson will not be calling for a re-think of the international calendar anytime soon.
Carter in particular was sublime. His undoubted talent is well-documented but that does not mean we should not celebrate it at every opportunity. The 29-year-old toyed with The Sharks with ball in hand and was reliable as ever from the kicking tee to remind anyone who didn't know already that he is a class apart. He is such a key and inspirational figure for the team as a whole that the sight of him limping off in the second half will be a worry for coach Todd Blackadder. But his concerns will be trumped by those of All Blacks coach Graham Henry who was watching from the stands. Henry, by his own admission this week, is struggling to identify and able deputy for Carter on the international stage and this latest dazzling performance will only intensify his frustration and feed his fear.
Williams' ascent to world domination continues to gather pace. Decked out in the day-glow boots that appeared to be standard uniform for the Crusaders' back division, Williams wasted no time in lighting up this encounter with his trademark one-handed offload making his first appearance with barely a couple of minutes on the clock. It was a sign of things to come in a breathless opening period during which he loomed large taking the ball to the line time and time again. The Crusaders' reliance upon him is understandable as even when he doesn't ghost through line he draws at least two defenders before more often than not finding a support runner with a delightful pass.
The worrying thing for those hoping to shackle him is that he is not the finished article. A cheap shot on Sharks No.8 Ryan Kankowski underlined his power-packed physique but also hinted at a potential wild streak. However, that ugly indiscretion was later followed by two much more appealing touches with the boot that highlighted a hitherto unseen kicking game. He is a work, or maybe masterpiece, in progress.
The Crusaders' Dan Carter works an opening during the historic game at English rugby's HQ © Getty Images
Carter, Williams and their fellow try-scorers Sean Maitland, Zac Guildford and Israel Dagg benefitted from the efforts of their pack but as a team they did not have a monopoly on the deadly concoction of power and flair. Very few sides, if any, could live with the Crusaders in this kind of mood but The Sharks stood tall. They weathered the storm and with the kind of grit we have become accustomed to from South African rugby they battled their way back into the game with their own crowd-pleasing brand of running rugby.
Some impressive muscle had brought them the opening try of the match through tough-as-biltong flanker Willem Alberts while fly-half Jacques -Louis Potgieter showed that devastating running rugby was not the sole preserve of New Zealand's South Island.
Flanker Keegan Daniel also offered his own take on the one-hand off load as tries from lock Alastair Hargreaves and winger Odwa Ndungane offered hope of an unlikely turnaround. But The Beast - prop Tendai Mtawarira - stole the show with a eye-catching cameo off the bench. This is a very strong Sharks side that is likely to go some way in the re-vamped Super Rugby competition but on this day their power and adventure was no match for a Crusaders side determined to honour their city.
The attendance at Twickenham may not have troubled the record Super Rugby crowd of 54,000 that flocked to see the Bulls edge out the Sharks in the 2007 finale but as showcase for the game it could not be faulted. The fact that the Red Cross Earthquake Appeal will benefit from a huge cheque - £175,470 - is an added bonus while the Crusaders' own financial woes will also be lifted a little by the bumper gate.
The Crusaders, The Sharks, SANZAR and the Rugby Football Union must be all applauded for making this happen while the supporters also warrant praise for embracing the fixture in such large numbers. The success of the event given the limited build-up time and promotion suggests Super Rugby may well return to London in the future - we can only hope.
As for the Crusaders' nomad existence, there may have not been the knights on horseback that grace the AMI Stadium in Christchurch and there may have been a distinct lack of Speights and Steinlager on sale at Twickenham's multitude of retail outlets but the warmth of a united ex-pat audience ensured it was as good as home for one day at least.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.