The RaboDirect Rebels ventured to Christchurch for the first time ever to play the 7-time champion Crusaders, and though they ultimately suffered a 30-26 defeat the Rebels snared a bonus point and no shortage of admirers for their efforts.
One of the most parochial crowds, and daunting tasks in Super Rugby, welcomed the Rebels as Tom English, Laurie Weeks and Jarrod Saffy moved into the starting lineup following the loss to the Southern Kings a fortnight ago. Gareth Delve also re-joined the squad, albeit from the substitute's bench, as English made his run-on debut in Super Rugby.
After a tribute to fallen soldiers from both nations to commemorate ANZAC Day, the game got underway beneath slight cloud cover, and with the famed Christchurch nor-westerly appearing uncharacteristically gentle. Wallabies coach Robbie Deans was amongst the interested onlookers.
The home side took the lead just two minutes in. The Rebels looked solid in possession from the kick-off and completed sixteen phases to threaten initially, but a turnover and counter-attack allowed Zac Guildford to score in the left hand corner. Tom Taylor struck the right-hand upright with the conversion attempt, but after just three and a half minutes the Crusaders led 5-0.
Both sides enjoyed their fair share of the football as the players began to acclimatise to the pace of the game, but the Crusaders were able to extend their advantage from a five metre scrum when Tyler Bleyendaal stormed over in the 13th minute. Taylor added the extras, and the onus was firmly upon the visitors to re-group and attempt to force their way back into the contest.
The Rebels were struggling at lineout time and with handling errors, but Scott Fuglistaller continued an industrious start with a great break just before the twenty minute mark. The Rebels again strung together numerous phases, and were rewarded as James O'Connor scored their first three points when George Whitelock was penalised.
And just a minute later, the Rebels scored their first try. Cooper Vuna made plenty of metres down the left wing, and a clever offload from O'Connor set up a fluid passing move across the length of the field, with stand-in captain, Scott Higginbotham, on hand to touch down. O'Connor missed a tough conversion attempt, and another good break from Vuna minutes later was unable to be capitalised upon.
The Rebels continued to create opportunities, with Fuglistaller doing a massive amount of work around the ruck and both Vuna and Woodward looking promising every time they had the ball in hand.
The Crusaders added another penalty just five minutes before half time. The Rebels then reciprocated with one of their own two minutes later, but there was still time for the Crusaders to add one more penalty goal and restore their seven point lead as the sides ran into the sheds at halftime.
The wind had picked up significantly, and it played a major part in the Rebels reduction of the deficit not long after the break as they took advantage of the difficulty it caused the hosts when they were kicking into it.
After peppering the Crusaders' goal line, Israel Dagg's clearance kick sat up in the wind and straight into the AFL-style leap of Nick Phipps. From the resulting play, the Crusaders were pinged offside and O'Connor was able to slot a penalty goal to get the scoring underway for the second half, but the sides continued to exchange penalties when Taylor made the Rebels' scrum pay after they collapsed on their own 22.
The Rebels were looking the more likely, and finally profited with their second try of the evening. O’Connor's break set it up, and it was fitting that the flyhalf finished the move with a fantastic lunge. Woodward stepped up with the kick but was unsuccessful.
Just two minutes later, following a great high take by Pyle from the kick-off, the Rebels scored their third when Ged Robinson plundered over for another try. It was duly deserved, and when O'Connor slotted brilliantly from the sideline even the home fans applauded.
Dan Carter & Andy Ellis were introduced for the home side, and their team mates inevitably lifted. A sixteen phase effort allowed Taylor to kick his fourth penalty goal, and Taylor's kicking master class continued as he offset the heavy wind to sneak over his fifth penalty goal and with it the lead.
Substitute Wyatt Crockett was dominating the scrum, and with the Rebels starved of possession their phenomenal defence was ultimately in vain. Taylor slotted his sixth penalty goal of the evening to seal a 30-26 victory for the Crusaders.
Rebels' Head Coach Damien Hill rued some indiscipline from his troops in the latter stages of the match.
"The last 15 minutes, we really didn't get the possession that we had been having and some back to back penalties to them meant the momentum started to change," Hill said. "At this level, against a team like that, it only takes a missed tackle here or a knock on there and they are on the front foot.
"In saying that, I'm exceptionally proud of the performance the boys put in tonight. I'm bitterly disappointed we weren't able to come away with the win for our supporters back home but the effort is definitely there. We need to continually work and fine tune the discipline, which is improving, and our execution, but the team stuck to the game plan very well.
"I am confident no matter who we are playing in this competition that if we put our game together we are exceptional competitors. We just need to work on the 5 or 10% to turn close losses into wins."
The impressive Fuglistaller and Robinson were amongst the players to catch Hill's eye, and he was impressed with the players he brought into the starting lineup.
"Scott Fuglistaller was one of our best, and Ged Robinson was too; he has been one of our best performers game in, game out, all year," Hill said. "Jason Woodward made a couple of errors, but I thought he was overall very good. I also thought for a debut Tom English had an outstanding game, and Jarrod Saffy for his first start this year really added to the performance."
Flyhalf James O'Connor had an outstanding second half, but couldn't hide the disappointment of coming so close and leaving without the win.
"I'm definitely disappointed to say the least," he said. "We controlled that game and played to our structures, but in the last 20 minutes a couple of simple errors cost us."
"Quality sides like the Crusaders are always going to make you pay, and they win the close ones. That's the difference between a champion team and teams that are growing and earning experience.
"There is definitely a belief there and the boys know that we almost did enough, but have to finish it better."
The Rebels host the Chiefs at AAMI Park on Friday, and O'Connor believes the five day break and parochial home crowd are just the tonic that the disappointed Rebels need.
"The short turnaround is probably the best thing for us. We really want to win against the Chiefs, at home in front of our fans, and we will get straight into it."
2013 Super Rugby - Round 11
Sunday, 28 April 2013 at AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 4.05pm (local) 2.05pm (AEST)
Crusaders 30 (tries: Guildford, Bleyendaal, conversions: Taylor (1) Penalties: Taylor (6)) defeated RaboDirect Rebels 26 (Tries: Higginbotham, O'Connor, Robinson, Conversions: O'Connor, Penalities: O'Connor (3))
1. Nic Henderson, 2. Ged Robinson, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Hugh Pyle, 5. Cadeyrn Neville, 6. Jarrod Saffy, 7. Scott Fuglistaller, 8. Scott Higginbotham (c), 9. Nick Phipps, 10. James O'Connor, 11. Cooper Vuna, 12. Rory Sidey, 13. Mitch Inman, 14. Tom English*, 15. Jason Woodward, 16. Shota Horie, 17. Paul Alo-Emile, 18. Luke Jones, 19. Gareth Delve, 20. Nic Stirzaker, 21. Angus Roberts, 22. Lachlan Mitchell
Coach: Damien Hill
1. Joe Moody, 2. Corey Flynn, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Luke Romano, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. George Whitelock ©, 7. Matt Todd, 8. Luke Whitelock, 9. Willi Heinz, 10. Tyler Bleyendaal, 11. Zac Guildford, 12. Tom Taylor, 13. Ryan Crotty, 14. Tom Marshall, 15. Israel Dagg, 16. Ben Funnell, 17. Wyatt Crockett, 18. Dominic Bird, 19. Jordan Taufua, 20. Andy Ellis, 21. Dan Carter, 22. Adam Whitelock
Coach: Todd Blackadder