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Ken Borland


The John McFarland Column: In praise of the Crusaders, SuperRugby champions

Posted on August 10, 2017 by Ken

 

Congratulations to the Crusaders for winning the SuperRugby final and one can only give them credit for an unbelievable season.

They lost just one game, against the Hurricanes in Wellington, and they are the first team to win the final after flying across the Indian Ocean.

Keeping the Lions to just two tries – even with just 14 men – was a heck of a defensive effort, especially with all the flying they had to do.

But the Crusaders are a very experienced group built on a tremendous forward pack. Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks and Israel Dagg, in the backline, are four world-class players and guys like Matt Todd and Ryan Crotty are really solid players too.

The Crusaders’ set-pieces were very strong and, as predicted, it was a different kettle of fish in the lineouts for the Lions, with Whitelock making some crucial steals, and they negated the lineout drive.

The Lions’ strength is built on forward dominance, at the lineout and scrum, but with four international front-rowers in their squad, the Crusaders stood up very well. They have an international-class tight five, plus Luke Romano off the bench and Kieran Read is one of the best lineout forwards in the world.

You could see how much it meant for the Lions – they really wanted to send off Johan Ackermann on a high – but the red card obviously had a huge effect.

It was the right decision by the officials, there’s no two ways about it.

The decision by Elton Jantjies to send up the high kick would have been because their ball was a bit slow, but then the chaser (flank Kwagga Smith) was sprinting and not even looking at the ball. The rule is quite clear that if you land up under the guy catching the ball – who is now in a very vulnerable position – it’s a red card.

In the Varsity Cup, there is already the rule that if the defending team catches an up-and-under and calls for the mark, then it’s a free kick, which makes teams less prone to try the high kick.

In a lot of situations, you’re dealing with specialists (the wings) doing the chasing and catching, but the problem comes when someone not used to it, it’s not their role, ends up doing the chasing or catching.

But rugby must never lose the contest for the high ball, it’s been part of the game since the 1930s in Ireland when the Garryowen was used in the rain.

If it’s a fair contest and both sets of eyes are on the ball, then all good, but Kwagga probably needed to wait until David Havili had come down before trying to tackle him.

The Crusaders were well in control at that stage, but the Lions are known for their finishing at altitude and it was 14-10 with 14 men in the second half and they were pushing hard.

Defensively, Kieran Read’s brilliant tackle on Elton Jantjies forced the turnover and a 70-metre try as the Lions ran out of width and Ross Cronje had to try and chase the wing; while Read’s own try came when Ruan Combrinck was the last defender at the goalposts, so the Lions were obviously in trouble there.

The Crusaders built up a big enough lead to force Jantjies not to kick for poles, but the Lions need to realise the importance of taking your points in finals rugby. It reminds me of 2012 with the Bulls in New Zealand when we lost 28-13 to the Crusaders in Christchurch. We outscored them two tries to one, but Dan Carter kicked six penalties and a drop goal. That’s always the right mindset in playoffs, especially at altitude because the game can change very quickly.

As the Crusaders coach back then, Todd Blackadder, used to say: “You must take every point,” and the New Zealand side certainly did that in this year’s final.

John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012 through to the 2015 World Cup, where they conceded the least line-breaks in the tournament and an average of just one try per game. Before that, McFarland won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.

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