Where teams are going wrong against the Crusaders

Braydon Ennor, Brett Cameron and Sevu Reece of the Crusaders in March 2019. Photo: Getty Images
Braydon Ennor, Brett Cameron and Sevu Reece of the Crusaders. Photo: Getty Images

As the shell-shocked Chiefs kicked straight to a Crusaders player or passed to no one at Christchurch Stadium and the home side ran in another try on Saturday night — they scored nine in total — a couple of thoughts occurred.

The first was — who can beat Scott Robertson's team, an outfit that has lost only three times in two-and-a-bit seasons, and last lost 12 months ago?

And the second was — are teams going about it the right way?

The most difficult opponent the Crusaders have faced this season were the Blues at Eden Park in round one, a game Robertson's men almost certainly would have lost had replacement first-five Harry Plummer kicked a late penalty.

The Blues created problems because they denied the Crusaders possession and slowly tightened the vice until the visitors, who looked slightly underdone apart from Scott Barrett and Braydon Ennor, began to crack. Leon MacDonald's men were also very good defensively on that warm night four weeks ago.

In Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Tom Robinson, Akira Ioane and Dalton Papalii, the Blues also had a pack in the final quarter which challenged the Crusaders all over the park, although, strangely, the Blues scrum had its issues after making a promising start.

In Christchurch, the Chiefs had ascendancy in the scrum once Joe Moody limped off after seven minutes and scored their first try via the set piece.

But instead of understanding what Moody's departure and the introduction of his 20-year-old replacement Harry Allen meant for them and adapting to a more conservative game plan, they continued to kick away (or pass away) possession to one of the best counter-attacking teams in the competition. They lost 57-28.

The Crusaders, like most Kiwi Super Rugby teams, and indeed the All Blacks, usually thrive against teams who take risks. They have won their last nine derby matches in a row.

So it's probably time for their opponents to change tack because why invite the defending champions to play a game they enjoy?

Similarly, the All Blacks like playing the Wallabies because of the Australians' unfailing confidence in their ability to beat them at their own game, although, interestingly, the Melbourne-based Rebels are Super Rugby's only other undefeated team.

The Springboks beat the All Blacks last year with an inspired defensive effort in Wellington allied with an incredible knack for making the most of their scoring chances, and they should have won the return match in Pretoria but for an inspired performance by Ardie Savea.

England and Ireland created many problems for the All Blacks last November with a game plan based around defensive pressure.

The issue with Super Rugby teams trying to play like England or Ireland, of course, is that few have packs with the ability of those international teams (except the Crusaders, probably). But you are not going to beat the Crusaders by simply trying to run them off their feet.

You have to squeeze them, deny them time and space, and make them take risks of their own.

This Saturday, the Crusaders will play the Highlanders in Dunedin, a return to the scene of their last loss a year ago.

The Highlanders dominated the Hurricanes pack in Wellington at the weekend but their game management cost them and they appear over-eager to play without the ball, as has been their way over the past few years.

To shut down the Crusaders, they must try to match them up front and retain as much possession as they can. But Robertson, already blessed with a fine hand of cards, is ready to pick up an ace in the form of returning skipper Sam Whitelock.

The Highlanders will need luck to go with their smart plan.

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