A fast start and a strong performance up front saw England beat a depleted Crusaders side 38-7 in their only midweek game of their 2014 New Zealand tour. The Crusaders were without their All Blacks and their inexperience showed, as England's physicality and intensity was clearly a step up from what many of the Crusaders had played before.
You could not fault the effort or the commitment of the Crusaders, who threw themselves at the English all night. They dropped too much ball however and found themselves going backwards too often to get any real attack going. While they were enterprising and made a handful of breaks from the back, they were unable to build too many periods of sustained pressure to force a mistake in the defensive line.
England deserve credit for this though, suffocating the Crusaders attack with their rushed defence, coming up quickly in the midfield to prevent them passing it wide. At the breakdown they did a great job of slowing the Crusaders ball down, applying pressure and giving the defensive line time to set up and stifle the Crusaders attack.
It was the first 10 minutes where England were at their most dominant. This was the time the inexperienced Crusaders line-up took to adjust to the increased intensity required at the next level. They were not able to get their hands on the ball and struggled with the English attack, looking a little casual on defence, especially in the case of the second English try, which came from a Johnny McNicholl covering blunder.
After this period the game was far more even. While England would take a 26-7 lead to the break, both sides were able to make threatening runs and the English found it harder to make inroads into a better Crusaders defence.
The second half was again an even affair, with both sides having chances, but scrambling well on defence to prevent the other from scoring. It took a brilliant ball to put winger Anthony Watson into a gap for England to extend the score to 33-7 and it was not until the final minute that they would cross the line again.
It was a valiant effort from the Crusaders, but ultimately they just made too many handling errors. Their passing was not accurate, they dropped too much ball at the line and had the ball ripped off them too often.
Despite this, it was great to see a midweek game once again on a tour. Once a main staple of any rugby tour, they have become rarer and rarer since rugby went professional.
The only critique would be that the top players were not available to the Crusaders. While England did not field their test players, it is an extremely tough ask for a Super Rugby team to beat a second-string England team without their key players.
It was the tight five where the Crusaders struggled the most and noticeably it was here where they were worst hit with their absences. Missing their two first-choice props and three top locks, they were always going to be up against against a very physical tight five. Likewise the midfield lacked punch without Ryan Crotty, and Israel Dagg would have made a difference from the back.
Ultimately though in this day and age it is perhaps simply a reality that players will not be released to play during the week of a test. That said, it would have been nice to see fringe All Blacks such as Dominic Bird and Colin Slade get a run. Both would have made a big difference to a Crusaders outfit who was significantly down on experience.
For England there is one game left of their tour, the third test against the All Blacks. While this win ensures they will not go home empty handed, they will undoubtedly want to add to this and avoid a whitewash in the test series.