Robbie Fruean of the Crusaders on the charge against the Highlanders

February 21, 2015 2:22 pm

These two sides
don’t do dull. In another compelling Southern derby, the ,
tiring badly down the straight, managed to hold on to the lead they
built in the opening 50 minutes – a period in which they played the sort
of rugby that will have left them reasonably chipper.
A week
makes all the difference. The Crusaders maybe needed their dismal
opening-round effort just to clean the pipes, as it were – make sure
there was no gunk in the system so they could get on with their season. 
Crusaders 26
20

of the Crusaders on the charge against the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images
They were, roughly, about 400 times better in Dunedin than they were in Christchurch last weekend in their defeat to the Rebels.
The
selection changes meant they started with more balance and thrust in
the places they needed it. The arrival of Scott Barrett in the second
row for Dominic Bird had a tangible impact.
The
Crusaders are excited by the former New Zealand under-20 lock who is
the third Barrett sibling to play Super Rugby. And it was easy to see
why – Barrett brought a dynamism and energy that was missing the
previous week.
He and Luke Romano worked in tandem to take those
tough yards around the fringes and it gave the Crusaders a better shape.
They were able to play on the front foot and with Ryan Crotty
straightening the attack and Israel Dagg looking sharper and more
confident than he has in ages, the Crusaders were an altogether tougher
proposition.
When they go forward before they go wide, they start to cause problems for the defence.
They
might have finally realised that as they were keen to use Robbie Fruean
at first receiver coming off his wing. Nothing fancy or complicated –
the big man, all 110kg of him – taking the short pass at pace and steam
rolling into the Highlanders midfield.
The Highlanders had to
defend the inside channels. They had to man-up around the rucks and that
left Colin Slade with a relatively free hand – which he played well.
He
did his best in directing the runners and organising the forwards and
he was careful to make sure he did his bit in fixing the defence. The
intention and structure was all good from the Crusaders and, in time, as
they settle into the season, their handling and timing will inevitably
improve and they will be able to better exploit the space they create on
the outsides.
There was an element of sympathy to be felt for
the Highlanders. They normally relish fast, open games. They love a
contest where the pace is frenetic and the flow constant.
But
they didn’t have the luxury of a game already under their belts. Most of
them looked to be blowing overly hard after half an hour and, in that
dangerous 10-minute period before halftime, they appeared to be digging
worryingly deep.
Their scrambling defence was fantastic. They
threw themselves into everything and three times on their own tryline
they somehow managed to get a body or bodies under the Crusaders
ball-carrier.
But it was easy to believe that effort was going to
hit them later in the game, that for all their mental toughness, they
weren’t going to have the physical base to stay in the fight.
Easy to
believe but entirely wrong. The Highlanders found their second wind.
Waisake Naholo came into the game and started busting holes. Malakai
Fekitoa with a yard of space also came into the game more and the
momentum shifted.
The only question to be asked was whether the
Highlanders had enough time and poise to overtake the Crusaders. They
had all the possession, all the belief and all of the territory – but
some of their flow was affected by their lack of game time together.
There
were too many basic handling errors and sloppy moments that put them
under pressure. They were nearly, but not quite there – all typical
early-season stuff and they shouldn’t be too disheartened. Look how much
the Crusaders improved in a week.
Highlanders 20 (A. Smith, M. Fekitoa tries; L. Sopoaga 2 cons, 2 pens) Crusaders 26 (S. Barrett, J. McNicholl tries; C. Slade 2 cons, 4 pens). Halftime: 7-20.

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