The Crusaders retained their place at the top of the New Zealand Super Rugby Conference when they beat the Western Force 30-7 in Christchurch.
The scoreline indicates that the Crusaders won the match comfortably but the reality is that they were made to work for the victory. Two penalty tries in the last 10 minutes for the Crusaders made the scoreline look more one sided than the match was.
Referee Mike Fraser awarded the first penalty try in the 72nd minute when he ruled the Force had deliberately collapsed the Crusaders’ driving maul and the second at a screwed scrum in the third minute of injury time. Fraser also sent Force lock Sam Wykes to the sin bin for a professional foul in the 71st minute and gave the Crusaders an overwhelming advantage in the penalty count.
Winger Johnny McNicholl scored one try and had another disallowed as the Crusaders took a 16-0 lead to halftime. But they were held scoreless in the second half until the first of their penalty tries. The win lifted the Crusaders to second on the overall standings, a point behind South Africa’s Sharks, at the start of the tournament’s 16th round – the last before a four-week break for June test matches.
The Crusaders were wholly dominant through most of the first half but, though they had ball in hand for much of the spell, were restrained by the Force’s outstanding scramble defense. The Force have allowed more line breaks than any other team in the tournament but their desperation in defence has given them the competition’s third-best defensive record.
That was exemplified by the match’s first 22 minutes when the Crusaders attacked almost relentlessly but had only two penalties to flyhalf Colin Slade to show for those advantages of territory and possession. McNicholl finally gave the Crusaders reward for their dominance with a try in the 25th minute. Slade first put in a pinpoint kick-pass to his right wing and, after turning the ball infield, stayed in support to take the final pass from fullback Israel Dagg who broke the defence with a strong fend.
McNicholl crossed the line again six minutes later but the try was disallowed for an obstruction at an earlier ruck.
The Force fully redressed the shortcomings of the first half in the first 30 minutes of the second. They competed more strongly for possession, held the ball for longer periods and pressed the Crusaders into more regular and desperate defence. The Force tested the Crusaders with high kicks, put pressure on those and also forced breakdowns in the Crusaders’ lineout.
They forced their way back into the match with a 49th-minute try to winger Dan Haylett-Petty who, minutes earlier, had come close to creating a try for Nick Cummings. Haylett-Petty came off his wing to take a pass in midfield after a series of phases close to the Crusaders’ line and spun through tackles to score under the posts.
The match remained close as the Crusaders remained scoreless for the first 32 minutes of the second half. The match then tipped in the Crusaders’ favour with the sin-binning of Wykes and the two late penalty tries.
Final Score Crusaders 30 (16) Force 7 (0)
Tries – J.McNicholl, Penalty try 2
Pen – C.Slade 3
Con – C.Slade 3
Tries – D. Haylett-Petty
Con – S.Ebersohn
Cards – S.Wykes (70th min yellow)