A powerful first half set the Canterbury Crusaders on their way to the Super 15 semi-finals when they beat the Northern Bulls 28-13 in a playoff match yesterday.
In a clash of Test-match proportions, with 11 All Blacks in the Crusaders starting line-up and 14 Springboks appearing for the Bulls, the Crusaders took control early with ferocious tackling, producing vital turnovers.
They raced to a 16-0 lead before the Bulls scored their first points with a penalty just before half-time.
Although the South Africans outscored the Crusaders in the try stakes two-to-one, they only managed to cross the line late in the game when the result was already beyond doubt.
The Crusaders cashed in on their high penalty count as the Bulls struggled to defend their line and Dan Carter, who amassed 23 points, landed six penalties and a drop goal.
Crusaders captain Richie McCaw said the intensity of the start, where the Bulls were forced to make 74 tackles in the first half to the Crusaders’ 24, was crucial to the outcome.
“In the first 40 minutes we played at the right end of the field. We didn’t give them any momentum. We limited our mistakes and our discipline was good, and because of that we applied pressure,” he said.
The Bulls’ highly vaunted set-piece failed them, they were unsettled in the scrums, their rolling maul failed to make ground and flyhalf Morne Steyn’s usually reliable kicking radar was off.
Bulls captain Pierre Spies said they were then made to pay as the penalties flowed against them.
“The Crusaders kept putting us under pressure and they put points on the board, and they played really well. We came back and scored some points, but the Crusaders were too good tonight,” Spies said.
The result continued a remarkable record for the Crusaders, the tournament’s most successful team, who have won all 15 of the play-off matches they have contested at home in the history of Super Rugby.
The Crusaders forwards drove lower and harder than the Bulls, and their attack-at-all-costs philosophy meant they maintained a territorial advantage which enabled Carter to give them the early initiative with two penalties.
Carter was also instrumental in the Crusaders’ sole try when he drew Steyn off his line, opening a gap for Zac Guildford to race through to the try line.
The All Blacks flyhalf added the conversion and then a drop goal to have the Crusaders up 16-0 before a Steyn penalty put the Bulls on the board.
The Bulls started the second half with a purpose that was lacking in the first 40 minutes, but within five minutes the attack fell apart in a bone-jarring tackle by Crusaders inside center Ryan Crotty.
Within the next five minutes the Crusaders won two further penalties within the shadow of the posts and Carter converted both to increase the lead to 22-3.
The Bulls were eventually rewarded when Dewald Potgieter drove over the line and in the closing minutes Wynand Olivier scored in a rare passing movement through the backline.
However, Steyn was unable to convert either try, while Carter landed two further penalties for the Crusaders.