Crusaders stick to their guns




It’s a funny game. The six-time champions and Super rugby royalty the Crusaders are heading to the semi-final in Pretoria as underdogs, in the face of what has been the ferocious form of the Bulls.

After systematically taking apart first the Blues and then absolutely annihilating the Reds, the Bulls’ pack, their traditional strength, is said to be playing to a near-flawless standard.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, scraped a win against the Hurricanes, and then went down rather meekly to first the Brumbies and then the Chiefs at home.

But this does not mean that the defending champions will enter Loftus on the backfoot, frightened of the bullish boys in blue.

On the contrary, like a true champion side, the Crusaders are set to back themselves and play their natural game.

Assistant coach, and former All Black and Crusader hooker, Mark Hammett spoke on the eve of what many expect to be a changing of the guard in Super rugby dominance.

As usual, the Crusaders are looking to fly well below any of the hype.

Hammett says the team has enjoyed their preparations in Durban.

“It’s been really good. It’s also been great to be training in sunny and warm conditions, which is a bit different from what we would be having at home.”

Hammett says the Crusaders, whilst not originally having Durban as their first-choice for a semi-final base, chose their surroundings on the basis of familiarity and the relaxed surroundings the city offers.

The team will arrive in Pretoria on Friday.

Hammett recognises the difficulty of playing the Bulls at Loftus, but cites the fact that the record shows that the going between the sides has been dead even at the Bulls’ lair.

“Playing at Loftus has generally meant a closer match between the two sides, whereas the matches in New Zealand have gone our way a fair bit easier.

“Obviously the crowd here is very passionate, and they are definitely going to be up for it come the semi-final.”

The Crusaders resoundingly defeated the Bulls in last year’s semi-final, thrashing them by 35-15 in Christchurch, a scoreline which flattered the visitors.

An injury-ravaged Bulls team, in the seventh round this year, did go down to a Crusaders side by 32-10 in Christchurch; a Crusaders side missing its All Blacks it needs to be remembered.

But Robbie Deans’ right-hand man definitely agrees that the Bulls have shown marked improvement this year.

“They have always predominantly played with their pack in a forward-oriented game. But this year their forwards are doing a great job creating space for their attack, and they have added some subtleties to their game. This makes them an improved side.”

As for countering the forwards onslaught with an expansive approach – as vivified by the Force’s victory at Loftus in the early exchanges of the tournament – Hammett asserted that such a style of rugby comes naturally to the Crusaders.

“We always try to play expansively. That’s the way we play.

“But we change a few things depending on what we see during the game. We have that ability to play different styles when needed.

“We have also been working on a few things we want do against the Bulls after analysing their strengths and weaknesses. So we have a few bits and pieces ready.”

The Crusaders are thus far the only New Zealand side to have recorded a win on South African soil this year.

“We were unlucky not to get a second against the Sharks, after they came back with that fantastic try right at the end. So we managed to get seven points out of our South African leg so we did well here this year.

“Why the other sides struggled I’m not sure.

“Part of the reason is that the game has become a bit more defence-orientated. There has been a great emphasis on getting players to the breakdown, and that does benefit the South Africans.”

With the Bulls demonstrating that they can dominate any team when they dictate the pattern and the rhythm of the play, the Crusaders see the necessity of playing Saturday’s semi-final on their own terms.

That kind of a semi-final may see the thwarting of the Bulls.

By Chris Waldburger 365 Digital 

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