Crusaders pushed hard by Reds

The Crusaders' Cullen Grace makes a break against the Reds. Photo: Getty
The Crusaders' Cullen Grace makes a break against the Reds. Photo: Getty
As a Crusader and All Black, Reds coach Brad Thorn was never one to shirk a challenge.

He made a career of it and his young bunch of injury-hit Queenslanders followed his example by pushing the defending champions to the limit  - losing 24-20 - in Christchurch last night.

The visitors were without playmaker James O'Connor and a host of other experienced players but there was not a hint of reticence or fear about the way they performed.

The Crusaders, who were coming off a bye and lost No 8 Tom Sanders to a yellow card on the stroke of halftime, were their own enemies at times and a better team might have punished them severely.

The Reds have won one game all season and haven't beaten the Crusaders since the Super Rugby final of 2011, but played with a confidence and skill that threw that form book in the brisk north easterly wind.

Henry Speight's brilliant breakout try with eight minutes remaining narrowed the gap to four points and if the Reds' goalkicking had been more accurate – they missed with all four conversion attempts – it may have been a very different result.

As it was, so loose were the Crusaders at times that it took all of their resolve just to finish on top, never mind the bonus point victory that many of their supporters may have been expecting.

Replacement halfback Mitchell Drummond's cover tackle on the flying prop Taniela "Tongan Thor" Tupou with minutes remaining was crucial – a potential match saver, but the danger wasn't over there. Attempting to close the game out in Reds territory in the final minute, the Crusaders spilled the ball and gave the visitors one last chance.

Fortunately for the home side, Thorn's men couldn't capitalise – a powerful red and black scrum saw to that and while Sevu Reece was over after the fulltime siren for what would have been a try to deny the Reds a losing bonus point, it was ruled out for a knock on.

Prop Joe Moody was over early for the Crusaders but for the rest of the half they treated possession – and defending – with an attitude that coach Scott Robertson may have felt bordered on irresponsible at times.

It was far too relaxed – completely the wrong stance when playing into a strong wind like the Crusaders were – and with the Reds growing in confidence thanks to a strong scrum and a fullback in Jack Campbell who was finding inroads, it spelled trouble.

The Crusaders have had trouble finishing opportunities this season but this laissez faire attitude was uncharacteristic and Sanders' yellow card for a ruck offence after a team warning by referee Rasta Rasivhenge would not have helped Robertson's mood.

The Crusaders, generally on the wrong side of the penalty count in every match this season, gave up eight to the Reds' three in the first half and while George Bridge showed good strength and perseverance to score straight after the break, back came the Reds through prop Tupou.

Wing Leicester Fainga'anuku's classic long-range try, begun by midfielder Jack Goodhue who was celebrating his 50th match, suggested the tide was turning a little, a momentum bolstered by the Crusaders' lineout superiority.

There were reasons to be cheerful for the Crusaders and Robertson, not least of which the four points which they banked to keep them on top of the New Zealand conference.

First-five Richie Mo'unga has recovered from his leg niggles, took the tee for the first time this season, and kicked all four attempts at goal, and wing Manasa Mataele returned to action for the first time since suffering a bad knee injury last year. Skipper Scott Barrett was again one of their best performers and his leadership late in the match was crucial.

It was ugly at times but the still rusty defending champions roll on.

Crusaders 24 (Joe Moody, George Bridge, Leicester Fainga'anuku tries; Richie Mo'unga 3 cons, pen), Reds 20 (Chris Feauai-Sautia, Harry Wilson, Taniela Tupou, Henry Speight tries). Halftime: 10-10

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