Leicester Fainga’anuku of the Crusaders charges forward against the Blues. Photo / Getty
It turns out the Blues are not the real deal, yet.
The Crusaders’ arrival at Eden Park was billed as the two best teams in Super Rugby Aotearoa squaring off.
That notion may still be true but so, too, do the Crusaders remain well ahead of the chasing pack after they burst the Blues bubble by delivering Leon MacDonald’s men an early-season reality check.
A seven-year, 13-game wait for the Blues to defeat the Crusaders stretches on.
Sunday’s comfortable victory, achieved with relative ease, goes a long way to securing a home final for the Crusaders. And if the Blues can’t knock over the Crusaders at Eden Park, where they had won their past five games before this defeat, pulling off such a feat in Christchurch is a much more daunting task.
The Crusaders didn’t have to get anywhere near their best against the Blues, either. Their methodical approach of controlling the set piece, accumulating points through Richie Mo’unga’s accurate boot and feeding off the Blues’ frequent errors – both with ball in hand and their ill-discipline – worked just fine.
When the squeeze came on, the Blues buckled.
After two victories to open the season against the Hurricanes and Highlanders, this was a disappointing display from the Blues. In the face of staunch defence their attacking execution was off and too often impatient frustration set in when they were chasing the game.
After trailing 17-8 at the break a second-half double from Kurt Eklund gave the Blues, and the 20,000 crowd, hope of a late comeback, but the replacement hooker then threw Sevu Reece, which resulted in referee Paul Williams reversing an original penalty. That instance proved the final nail and a coach-killer moment for MacDonald.
Mo’unga scored from the resulting penalty by jinking down the blindside and his 28-point haul – nailing all nine kicks- was highly influential in the result.
Hoskins Sotutu reduced the final margin but the Blues’ afternoon was again soured by a late yellow card to All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi for a clumsy cleanout on Crusaders captain Scott Barrett.
Reece’s final strike had locals leaving for the exits early – deflated after expecting to witness this Blues side challenge New Zealand’s champion outfit. It was not to be.
While the Crusaders contemplate a well-earned bye week, MacDonald now knows exactly where his team sits in the pecking order, and how much work remains before they can claim to be on the red and blacks’ elite level.
The first half didn’t live up to the hype with dropped ball, penalties and a series of scrums stifling the contest from establishing any sort of attacking flow.
The Blues had more than enough territory and possession to mount pressure throughout but the Crusaders’ gang tackling and superb scrambling defence made the locals work overtime for their points.
The Crusaders, meanwhile, scored with relative ease; Jack Goodhue pouncing on Bryn Hall’s grubber into the in-goal and Codie Taylor continuing his standout early-season form to cross from a rolling maul.
Defensively the Crusaders fell off the odd tackle but their goalline was near impenetrable. The Crusaders repelled the Blues maul, their beefed-up scrum, and often stopped ball carriers in their tracks.
The Blues’ only first-half try was dubious, too, with the ball appearing to travel forward from Caleb Clarke to Blake Gibson on the edge.
Four tries each suggests this match was close. The reality, however, is quite removed.
For now at least, a fifth straight Crusaders title looks another procession.
Crusaders 43 (Jack Goodhue, Codie Taylor, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece tries; Mo’unga 4 cons, 5 pens)
Blues 27 (Kurt Eklund 2, Blake Gibson, Hoskins Sotutu tries; Otere Black con, pen, Harry Plummer con)