Crusaders’ slow start in Super Rugby a worry for New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — After 12 Super Rugby titles, the Christchurch-based Crusaders often are a reliable bellwether for the state of New Zealand rugby.

For that reason their 24-21 loss to the Hamilton-based Chiefs in the fourth round of Super Rugby Pacific on Saturday might be an early cause of concern for the All Blacks as they look ahead to a challenging international season.

There were nine All Black in the Crusaders’ starting 15 against the Chiefs, including midfielders David Havili and Braydon Ennor, flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, lock Sam Whitelock and front-rowers Codie Taylor and Joe Moody.

More would have been expected of a team of that strength than it produced. Several try-scoring chances were bungled by handling errors and there were many more failings, tactical and technical, which have become almost symptomatic of the New Zealand section of the competition.

New Zealand Rugby recently wrote to the New Zealand government appealing for dispensation from COVID-19 regulations which limit crowds to a fraction of a stadium’s capacity. It may be debatable whether crowds would be larger if there were no limitations.

While matches between the New Zealand teams mostly have been close this season, the standard has been poor. Lack of ball retention and control, poor tactical and kicking options have made most matches low on spectator appeal.

The Crusaders conceded the first try of Saturday’s match but rallied to lead 21-10 after 46 minutes. In normal circumstances, the Crusaders would have made that try an exclamation point in the match and gone on to win comfortably.

But they lost control of the match and spent most of the second half on defense, worn down by the Chiefs who won with two tries in the last six minutes.

“I’m proud of the effort, really proud of the effort and the care the boys showed around the defensive side of it but all of us will be frustrated because 21-10, 20 to go, we just couldn’t get the ball back,” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said.

“We know the Chiefs are courageous. They were desperate (and) took the opportunities at the end. We could have closed it out and didn’t.”

Both teams were disrupted by late changes caused by COVID-19: the Crusaders lost their captain Scott Barrett and the Chiefs lost All Blacks scrumhalf Brad Weber, among others.

COVID is increasingly affecting the tournament. The match between the Hurricanes and Moana Pacific on Saturday was the third match in four rounds which has been postponed because of COVID cases.

The Auckland-based Blues started the round with a 32-20 win over the Dunedin-based Highlanders. For the first time in three matches, the Blues result didn’t depend on any last-minute plays. Instead they made their win comfortable with an early second half double by Taine Plumtree.

The Crusaders now are third on the overall Super Rugby Pacific table behind the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds who both are unbeaten after four matches in Australia.

The Brumbies scored six tries to two in their win on Friday over the Melbourne Rebels.

“We don’t want to be at the peak of our game at the moment but what I’m liking is that we’re learning and building and getting better every week,” coach Dan McKellar said. “It was 15 minutes until we touched the ball and then we put a couple of tries together and I was pleased with how we defended our goal line.”

The Reds held out the Fijian Drua 33-28 and the New South Wales Waratahs beat the Western Force 22-17 on Sunday for their first win over an Australian rival in two years.

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