Is this the changing of the guard?
I wouldn’t go quite that far yet, simply because the Crusaders have history, quality across the park, a fantastic coaching team, and suffered from a lack of players for a significant amount of time in this game due to Scott Barrett stupidity.
However, a Blues win in Christchurch breaks the Spencer curse and suggests that finally the cracks in the Saders armor might be problematic; principally they have recently been giving up points after scoring themselves, which is very un-Crusaders like.
Furthermore, the Blues are starting to show some steel; the defense is beginning to be trustworthy. Even if it seems suicidal to kick to the most dangerous back three in the competition, they somehow managed to hold on. They held out the Saders for the final five minutes – when I was sure they would concede a try. Looking at the game stats, the Saders had plenty of opportunities too, with 57% possession and 58% territory, including winning 100% of their ball at setpiece. There is nothing off with their performance except two acts of stupidity from Barrett and Havili – and perhaps an 86% tackle percentage (120/139). They had more ball (118 vs 85), ran more metres (451 vs.372), and kicked less but better than the Blues.
Nevertheless, the Blues won. Although it was a team effort, certain players stood out. As I wrote in the MOTM thread, Dalton Papalii has fully arrived as the successor to Cane. He was the best player on the park, he ran for 52 with 6 defenders beaten and two clean breaks. He made 21 tackles (with none missed) and lead the team without having to ask the coaches for help.
While Rieko only ran for 17 metres, his defense was fucking unbelievable . He made 16 tackles including some absolute try savers (2 missed) and I can see why the AB coaches might see him as a weapon at 13 not only for his proficiency on turnover ball on attack, but also the speed with which he can cover on defence.
It was likely the winning the of the game. As I wrote on the MOTM thread, I’m now fully convinced he is the answer at 13, so the question is who to match him with at 12. Havili was pretty awesome for the Sader tonight, but is he the right mix with Rieko. In memory of the Baron, ‘plrase discuss’.
We need a TH prop that can run and play on the ball. Ofa – tonight - was exactly what we need. He ran for 38 metres, conceded no penalties, and didn’t miss a tackle. Many of his runs led to breaks as well.
As many have mentioned, lots of others were good too (Sotutu 15 made, none missed; Romano 12 made, 1 missed) but I think that those three stand apart.
For the Saders, it’s probably a wake-up call and I still believe they are the favorites. Simply put, their championship pedigree is not something to ignore from one defeat. They have the most exciting player in NZ rugby in Will Jordan and they use him well (152 metres, 11 runs, 17 passes, 3 clean break, 7 defenders beaten, 5 made and 1 missed, although the three turnovers are still a small issue).
They’ve found an exciting new lock in Gallagher (Gallawillis) who made 15 and missed 1 and looks like he has been playing at this level for years. They always looked like they’d steal it at the end, only being thwarted thanks to an incredible chase and tackle by Ioane and Papalii.
Beyond that, their spine stood up well in the fightback – Mo’unga was dangerous with 8 defenders beaten (although his defence was also exposed a bit in this game, while Taylor and Grace were strong with 22 carries between them.
Looking towards the finals, you have to expect these teams to see each other again and I cannot fucking wait.