After the scapegoating which forced changes to Crusaders branding, everybody knew the team’s mindset remained more important than their battle dress. On Saturday they proved it.
Their home town also showed the value of unequivocal support in fostering greatness.
When the Jaguares qualified for 2019’s Super Rugby final, their expatriate army of baristas and buskers started to assemble. At any other New Zealand venue within fifty miles of under-the-table pay and reliable cannabis supply, Argentine fans could have outnumbered locals.
New Zealand’s own rugby community outside of Crusaderland meanwhile seemed quite evenly divided, between axe-grinding fans of other franchises openly declaring support for the Jaguares and other less mean-spirited enthusiasts... both, of course, recognising excellence and aware it isn’t manifested anywhere better than on that field in Addington right now, whether happy about it or not.
It’s a thing. Crusader fans deal with it. In the post quake years, when the lads weren’t coming up to their own high bar under Todd Blackadder, it was a lot tougher to zen it out.
Luckily Addington was never under threat of becoming Estadio Christchurch for the night. A sea of red and black surrounded two life rafts full of rowdy foreigners. Rugby attendance is still taken seriously in that city thank God, it’s becoming quite a stark distinction from the other largest municipalities... since our society became too permissive and legalised soccer, changing their sporting demographics too suddenly.
The Jaguares did excite their fans by scoring the first points, an early penalty by first five Joaquin Diaz Bonilla when halfback Bryn Hall was caught offside. But that was as close as the visitors came to forcing the issue. The atmosphere began to alter between calmly oppressive and increasingly desperate, depending on who had possession.
In the 25th minute a boxkick by Hall was caught by Bonilla but flanker Matt Todd dispossessed him and number eight Kieran Read flicked turnover ball to captain Sam Whitelock. The second rower set sail down the left hand touchline, finding hooker Codie Taylor inside him with a pass that many midfielders would have envied for the game’s only try.
The closest the Jaguares came to a try of their own was two minutes before half time when flanker Pablo Matera offloaded and gave wing Matias Moroni a few yards of open space. Moroni stepped infield and had players on either side of him but ignored them, instead trying to beat fullback David Havili with another sidestep.
Havili propped off his left leg and buried his right shoulder in the greedy fool’s breadbasket, separating man from ball on the goal line with a copybook tackle. Don’t bring that shit to Christchurch.
The siren for half time was sounding when Hall took off from the defensive scrum, having alerted second five Jack Goodhue beforehand. Goodhue found his five eighth partner Richie Mo’unga in support and he transferred quickly to centre Braydon Ennor as the Crusaders swept over halfway. A few recycles later, Jaguares hooker Augustin Creevy was pinged at ruck time and Mo’unga landed a mid range goal to give the Crusaders a 10-3 lead at the break.
They so easily could have been 7-10 down. Hall’s dart had caught the Jaguares unawares. Were they still fighting adrenalin ebb? Either way expecting a kick for touch is always underestimating the Crusaders, rugby’s worst punishers of complacency.
It was the night’s first instance of conventional assumptions being punished. The Crusaders have a bone-deep ability to identify opportunities, green lighting attacks when conservative play is expected. It’s been arguably more important than defensive tenacity and secure ball skills in the building of this dynasty. In Christchurch they call those the basics.
The Jaguares resumed well after the interval, Matera once more putting Moroni in the clear, this time with a quick catch-and-pass on halfway. Moroni chipped over Havili and regathered but again failed to connect with his support.
In the 50th minute the Crusaders began to turn the mental screws hard.
First they hammered out twelve phases against some tough Jaguares defence and earned a penalty right under their posts. Whitelock nonchalantly pointed to the sideline and turned to address his forwards. Mo’unga appeared to be judging the best angle to put them within five yards of the corner flag for the lineout. The Jaguares began to drift in that direction, discussing defensive tactics for that set piece.
Suddenly Mo’unga quick-tapped and threw Whitelock the ball, the Crusaders pack instantly wrapping around their skipper for an assault on the line. They succeeded in driving over but the replay showed Todd unable to ground cleanly, a desperate mob of Jaguares converging just in time.
Awarded a penalty from the resulting scrum and with everybody expecting him to call for a reset, Whitelock surprised most by pointing to the goalposts. But even after the previous call to go quickly, this less adventurous decision made perfect sense. Whitelock wouldn’t even have given the go-ahead for that earlier quick tap if the Jaguares hadn’t started drifting towards the touchline, unaware. What appeared to be similar situations were markedly different in Whitelock’s mind.
The easy shot pushed the lead to ten points and also seemed to have an effect on the strategy of Bonilla, the Jaguares’ playmaker. Up to this point he’d largely been taking flat balls at the gain line and trying to put runners into gaps, but at 3-13 down he began to sit back in the pocket and punt. In the fifteen minute spell following Mo’unga’s second penalty, Bonilla kicked directly to Crusaders on three occasions without chasers being able to exert any pressure whatsoever.
It was as if Whitelock’s decision had turned the game into a duel of risk aversion, but only in Bonilla’s mind because his team mates seemed as surprised by the decisions to kick as anyone else. The Crusaders exploited this with accurate return kicking, sensibly playing territory and earning another penalty for illegal entry at a lineout drive, goaled reliably by Mo’unga.
The now ineffective Bonilla was replaced by Domingo Miotti, whose gun-slinging attitude made a difference immediately even though his preferred method of attack was still with the boot. One of his first touches was to float a raking kick over the heads of the Crusader backline, all of them taken unawares and watching helplessly as Moroni raced behind them trying to reach it, but on the dewy surface the ball skidded a yard too far for the wing and bounced over the dead ball line.
Five minutes later the Crusaders applied the tactical blowtorch once more. Feeding their own scrum on halfway with an entirely new front row, they knew the Jaguares would not expect an eight man shove. Folding the vaunted Argies over backwards with perfect late-contest coordination, they earned one last long range penalty. Mo’unga landed it with a foot to spare.
Closing out cold-bloodedly like they do better than anyone, they kept the Jaguares locked in a cage gnawing at the padlock. Retaining possession and expertly shunting bodies off the ball, they patiently recycled all the way to the final whistle.
Ticker and character aside, without a doubt it had been their greater experience which counted in the end, ring craft. They knew there wouldn’t be many moments to seize and were alert to every chance.
As the only player to have achieved two three-peats, one as a player and one as a coach, Razor Robertson celebrated in the usual manner by busting some breakdance moves on the wet grass with his team clapping him on. That ceremony’s total dgaf exuberance has become emblematic of rugby culture in Crusaders country. Those New Zealanders hoping for a Jaguares win might even have brushed off their shoulder chips momentarily to enjoy it.
A different level of connection between the Crusaders and their fans is most obvious in these moments. They are fellows, equally as one in victory as in tragedy. They know who they represent. They play in front of grandstands who never boo them and are never overly disappointed by them in their rare losses, seldom questioning their decisions.
The following morning a few hungover Cantabrians may have made the mistake of getting out of bed only to watch the Black Ferns get rolled by Frenchwomen for the second time in a row. Last year’s thriller in France was a magic moment in front of packed grandstands, whereas this was in front of a few hundred picnicking San Diegans and wasn’t even close. The Ferns looked alarming slow and unimaginative while the French girls looked intense and dynamic.
France 25 Black Ferns 16
New Zealand has one more match in the five way tournament, against England midweek. They’ll need a big improvement to trouble them.
If I was one of the Ferns who’d played in the previous two decades, unpaid while crushing all comers, I’d be pretty cheesed off watching this current generation getting handed their hats while making more money than half the Crusaders.