It took character and a magnificent defence for the Crusaders to deny the frustrated Lions in Saturday’s Super Rugby final at Christchurch’s tattered AMI Stadium.
How else can you describe that 37-18 win when the Lions won 56 per cent possession and 66 per cent territory against what All Blacks coach Steve Hansen calls the Crusaders’ Rolls Royce pack that supposedly gives Richie Mo’unga an armchair ride?
With nearly 90 per cent wins as All Blacks coach, I admire the iconic Hansen’s record but would respect him more if he acknowledged Mo’unga has outplayed Barrett and the mercurial Damian McKenzie every time they’ve clashed this season.
He’s right to cite 27-year-old Barrett’s superior experience with 65 tests compared to 24-year-old Mo’unga’s one, but how is M’ounga going to gain more if it is judged ahead of the Crusader’s superior form?
That is not intended to denigrate Barrett who has been International Rugby Player of the Year over the past two years although left wing Rieko Ioane must have run him close in 2017.
However Barrett has struggled against the rush defence since last year’s British and Irish Lions tour and doesn’t cope with the tight marking as well as the elusive Mo’unga who is also the more accurate goal-kicker.
While Hansen and fellow selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox are spoilt for choice when it comes to so many positions, experience, while valuable, should not always take precedence over form.
Having also starred at fullback, Beauden Barrett has the pace, sidestep and swerve to be a great attacking centre in the mould of Bruce Robertson outside the likes of Mo’unga and Ryan Crotty.
Despite playing very little rugby because of injury, Sonny Bill Williams returns to the squad at the expense of human cannon ball Ngani Laumape who scored 15 tries in Super Rugby last year.
Lively Crusaders left wing George Bridge is another unlucky not to have made the 33-man squad although the All Blacks are well served there by Ioane and Waisake Naholo.
However Bridge has been consistently better than the once electrifying Nehe Milner-Skudder whose injuries have blunted his pace and enterprise. But he remains a wonderful talent capable of bouncing back to his best given time.
The same applies to hooker Dane Coles who has long been sidelined but has been named in the squad alongside Codie Taylor and Nathan Harris.
Having led the Crusaders defence against the Lions, it’s a shame Matt Todd’s sojourn in Japan has made him unavailable for the Rugby Championship against Australia, South Africa and Argentina.
Particularly impressive was the manner in which the Crusaders consistently sacked the Lions rolling maul from lineouts.
Having won back-to-back Super championships in his first two years as Crusaders coach after a successful stint as Canterbury Mitre 10 mentor, Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson has produced a sharp cutting edge.
Meanwhile it was great to see the Warriors bounce back from their horror Mr Hyde loss to the Titans with a splendid 18-12 Dr Jeykll win against the Dragons when they attacked well in the first half and defended strongly in the second.
Captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck led by example with some wonderful runs while Isaiah Papali’i and Jazz Tevaga continue to thrive in a pack led by Isaac Luke.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author