Normally, the top ranked qualifier after a regular season is supposed to be rewarded with the easiest sudden death match of the finals.
Certainly, the Bulls wouldn’t have counted on having the seven time champions coming to Loftus. The 2007 champions though will be confident, being the only team to be undefeated side at home in the Rebel Sport Super 14.
In fact, in three years, they have lost just four matches at their daunting fortress.
In the early stages of the tournament, both sides were polar opposites in their opening form.
The Bulls were unbeaten until round six. Not only had they posted the highest score of any team in the competition, with an exquisite 59-26 annihilation of the Blues, but had just knocked off fellow contenders the Hurricanes in Wellington.
The Crusaders won only one of their first five matches. Barely halfway into the season, the defending champions were being written off.
But then the worm turned, for both teams. The Bulls would suffer their biggest loss of the season, and the biggest upset, losing to the Highlanders 36-12. It would be on the heel of this result that a wounded Bulls team would approach Christchurch.
Meanwhile, the defending champions would upset the Waratahs in Sydney, and then take down the Stormers to approach the match against the Bulls reinvigorated.
In a tight match, the Crusaders would win 16-13.
Why the Bulls lost
The Bulls approached the match overly wary and with a pragmatism that may have been typical of the classic Blue Bulls approach, but not of the 2009 team.
After showing a taste for running rugby, they reverted back to old ways against a Crusaders team that has proven to be a nemesis for the Bulls. This tentativeness wore off as the match wore on, but by then the red and blacks had their match winning lead, and defended it as if their lives depended on it.
Conversely, the Crusaders came out and despite not being noted for their attack (this year) they ran the ball and took the fearsome South African pack on at their own game.
The worst news for the Bulls would be that this loss would come despite being at full strength.
Why the Crusaders won
The Crusaders were not at all worried about the reputation of the Springbok laden team coming into their own backyard. After all, the Bulls had not won in Christchurch since 1996.
Even without All Black captain Richie McCaw, the performance of their pack was outstanding, taking it to the vaunted Bulls eight led by test players Brad Thorn and Kieran Read.
Essentially, it was a master class of choking and pressure inducing rugby. The Crusaders ran the ball at the Bulls, stretching them wide and running hard up the middle with mutual effect. Looking back at the match statistics, it was a complete performance from the defending champions.
Workmanlike and playing as a team, this has been typical of their season, and history.
The Bulls in 2009
Season form: W W W W bye W L L W L W W W W
Form at home: Played 6, Won 6
At home all time: Played 71, Won 38, Lost 31, Drawn 2
There is no doubt that the Bulls do look the complete team this year. A brutal and intimidating pack, possibly the world’s best locking combination (Super 14 or international), a brilliant back row, arguably the best scrum half in world rugby, and an excellent three quarter line full of experience and class.
The only two novices, Zane Kirchner and Morne Steyn, are both being talked up as being new capped Springboks this year, to go along with the 12 test players in the team.
There recent form is a good or a bad thing, depending on which side of the fence you sit. Their latest wins have been by 1, 9, 3, 6 point margins, before losing three of four match’s midseason. This is by far the worst form of any semi finalist.
However, you could also view that the 2007 Rebel Sport Super 14 champions, full of 2007 World Cup winners, is doing just what they need to do. Win when needed.
They do also hold two significant aces in the season’s statistics—they lead the way in kicking metres, and win the most, and concede the least turnovers. Championship winning attributes?
Injuries: Wynand Olivier is in doubt, while JP Nel has been banned for four weeks.
The Crusaders in 2009
Season form: W L L L D W W W bye W L W W W
Form away: Played 7, Won 4, Lost 3
Away record all time: Played 88, Won 48, Lost 39, Drawn 1
What to say in a few words?
The Crusaders in 2009 should in theory have already had their Mad Monday and be reflecting on a year of rebuilding.
Not only have they had their typical player losses that they have suffered in recent years—including the profile departures of Robbie Deans and Dan Carter’s sabbatical, but have had players such as Casey Laulau (who was the form player of the tournament) and All Black Corey Flynn out for the season.
As well as not having the services of All Black talisman Richie McCaw.
But this has counted for nothing.
The seven time and defending champions are alive and well, and conceivably only two matches away from becoming eight time winners.