Crusaders overcome Force
An inconsistent performance from play-off contenders the Crusaders ended in a 30-7 victory over the upstart Western Force.
Johnny McNicholl's sixth try of the season and two penalty tries late on with the Force reduced to 14 men ground out a tough win for Todd Blackadder's side, as they kept their recent good form going.
Ever so slightly disjointed from losing several players to the All Blacks training camp earlier in the week, the Crusaders didn't execute anywhere near their best with loose passes being flung into touch or going forward.
Yet they still won by a margin of 23 points, underlining how much Matt Hodgson's Force outfit struggled to work their way into the contest in Christchurch until the second half.
The Force have always been industrious this year but the extra touch of skill required here was absent, their best efforts often coming undone inside the opposition 22.
A rusty opening ten minutes for the Crusaders eventually yielded some points through the boot of Colin Slade, one of many New Zealand fly-halves eager to impress ahead of the Test series with England.
That 3-0 lead wasn't a fair reflection of how the home side were dominating territory and possession, but loose passes and last ditch tackles such as the one from Nathan Charles on Nemani Nadolo were keeping the Crusaders out.
An offensive on the hosts line saw Richie McCaw and Dominic Bird stopped short but Slade added a second penalty as the Force toiled at the scrum.
Momentum though was building and eventually the Force cracked, unlocked by a half-break from Israel Dagg as he contorted his body around the defence and offloaded to a grateful Johnny McNicholl for a try in the corner.
McNicholl thought he had another a few minutes later after some sublime handling put him into the corner, but the play was called pack due to an illegal block on Sias Ebersohn by Tim Perry in the build-up. Slade added another three before the half was out to have the Crusaders comfortably ahead 16-0 at half-time.
The Force were not going to be nilled though. A scrambled pass bounced kindly for Nick Cummins and although he was held up, the Force had valuable field position.
They struck from it through Dane Haylett-Petty, coming off his wing and stepping his way through under the sticks to put the Force on the board well into the second half.
Not by coincidence, the Crusaders were growing sloppy. As the Force racked up scrum and breakdown penalties and benefited with territory they posed a significant threat. If only they could stop the deluge of turnovers they conceded at the breakdown.
Work ethic has been a huge part of the Force's success this year but their endeavour bore little fruit, a 20-phase barrage in the Crusaders half coming to nothing.
Penalties were now going against them and as the Crusaders fought back Sam Wykes was sent to the bin for coming in at the side as the Force stood dazed. The penalty try that came as a result felt inevitable, a Crusaders driving maul too difficult to stop close to the line and forcing the Force into illegal action.
Kieran Read's breakout interception could have lead to a second try for McNicholl but he was brilliantly stopped by Cummins with a try-saving tackle inches short of the line, underlining the Force's effort and the Crusaders' night. That said, Steve Hansen will have been encouraged to see Read stretch his legs after six weeks out.
One last show of dominance however remained from the Crusaders as their scrum splintered the Force apart repeatedly on their own line, leaving Mike Fraser no choice but to run under the sticks again to add some gloss on the scoreboard with the hooter having already sounded. Despite a second half blip, their scrum had been ruthless.
It might not have been pretty but the Crusaders bagged another crucial win, extending the gap momentarily at the top of the New Zealand Conference to five points with their ninth victory of the season to move second.
Tries: McNicholl, Penalty Try 2
Cons: Slade 3
Pens: Slade 3
Yellow Card: Wykes
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Tom Taylor, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (capt), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Adam Whitelock, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Western Force: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Dane Haylett-Petty, 13 Patrick Dellit, 12 Chris Tuatara-Morrison, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Angus Cottrell, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Brynard Stander, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Kieran Longbottom, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Ollie Hoskins, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Ryan Hodson, 21 Justin Turner, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Dillyn Leyds.
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Lash (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
Television match official: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)