Friday, June 14, 2024

Blues’ streak ends as Crusaders turn a corner

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Times’ sports columnist Jim Birchall. Photo supplied
  • By Jim Birchall

The Blues bumbled a golden opportunity in Christchurch on Saturday to keep 14-time Super Rugby champion Crusaders out of the playoffs after losing 29-27.

Despite the Crusaders enduring their worst season since the concept started in 1996, the plucky Southerners were fighting for their lives in front of a bewildered public not used to losing week after week.

Under-pressure Crusaders coach Rob Penney finally experienced being on the right end of a tight finish.

The former number-8 endured a tumultuous lead-up week when he was triggered by a reporter’s line of questioning over his future with the club.

The encounter, more awkward than bumping into your ex in the street, could have spiralled into a PR disaster and led to Penney circling the job ads had they again come second.

It was a game they simply had to win, and now sitting on 19 points, and despite their 3-10 record, if they can beat Moana Pasifika next week as expected, they could still sneak into the semi-finals should the Fijian Drua fail to topple the Rebels in Lautoka.

For the Blues, the decision to rest Saint Kentigern College old-boy Dalton Papalii, along with the in-form Caleb Clarke under the guise of “load management” was criticised in some quarters.

Those who believe in playing your best team against the best may have a point given Saturday’s result.

However, with the finals two weeks away the exclusions were probably justified, but selection cohesion needs to be implemented at the business end starting with round 15s challenge from the Chiefs.

The close loss would have stung and done nothing to erase the memories of the 52-15 massacre in last year’s semi-final at the hands of the perennial foes.

But in an interesting coda, the two-point deficit earned them a bonus point which nudged them ahead of the Hurricanes to leave the Blues atop the table.

In quarterfinal rugby, the top finisher plays the eighth. Should results go the Crusaders’ way, they could well be playing the Blues again at fortress Eden Park.

Now that’s a scary thought.

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