Crusaders vs. Sharks: Winners and Losers from Super Rugby Semi-Final
The Crusaders demolished the Sharks 38-6 at the AMI Stadium on Saturday to book their place in this year's Super Rugby final, where they will meet either the Brumbies or the Waratahs.
What started out as a tense semi-final fixture between the two in Christchurch gradually turned into a mauling from the hosts, who went in at the break 10 points up but found a second gear after half-time to amass a 32-point differential.
The New Zealand side are completely deserving of their right to challenge for an eighth Super Rugby title of their history, earning a raft of pleasant positives from their most recent triumph.
All statistics come courtesy of ESPN Scrum.
Winner: Kieran Read Getting Back to His Player of the Year Best
Having struggled with injury and illness for a great portion of the 2014 campaign, it's understandable that Kieran Read hasn't always played at his optimum in the wake of being christened 2013 IRB Player of the Year.
However, turning up on the biggest stage is a veritable indicator of true quality, and Read's display against the Sharks showed glimpses of the No. 8 at his rampaging, free-handed best.
As per usual, Read found himself gravitating toward the flanks, offloading around the back of his tacklers as has so tremendously become his trademark. But his biggest contribution came in the 16th minute, where quick hands through the backs opened up just enough space for Read to leave his mark.
Scoring the opening try of the game from a break down the left fashioned by his own blend of pace, power and agile stepping, the Crusaders giant once again looked like the Read we were more used to seeing last year.
The official All Blacks Twitter account was quick to praise its international asset:
The titanic presence couldn't keep up the same speed in the second period, but he was substituted after beating four defenders and finishing the match as the Crusaders' third-highest earner in metres made (49)
Now, a third career Super Rugby final looms for the Canterbury talisman, where Todd Blackadder can only hope his resurgence is stepped up another notch.
Loser: Pat Lambie's Starting XV Return
This time last week, Sharks fans will have been overjoyed to see Pat Lambie make his return against the Highlanders, coming on for a late cameo after four months out with injury.
Saturday's high-stakes fixture being his first Sharks start since then, the script didn't play out as it was dreamed by Lambie, whether it was down to fitness or perhaps more simply the occasion getting on top of him.
By half-time, the Sharks had already made four kicking errors, a massive aspect of their game to give up considering how much they've relied on the boot this year and by no coincidence came about with Lambie's position at 10.
Ruckin Good Stats illustrated the kicking issues evident at the halfway stage:
Halftime: Crusader have made 0 kick errors, Sharks 4, 3 from tactical kicks from hand, 1 from restart #CRUvSHA— Ruckin Good Stats (@ruckingoodstats) July 26, 2014
One could certainly argue that Frans Steyn wouldn't have fared any better, and Jake White may well hold no regrets in his decision, but his choice to fling the player back into the deep end didn't pay dividends.
Kickoffs going straight out of touch, incontestable high balls handing possession to the opponent and a lack of confidence at times from the tee all showed that Lambie wasn't quite ready for such duties.
At times, the 23-year-old looked strong when carrying and made some decent ground with several breaks, but it was largely a day out in Christchurch to forget.
Winner: Crusaders' Championship Momentum Rumbles On
A week's break did the Crusaders the world of good, it seems, and if one were pushed to describe the victors' performance from Saturday in one word, "polished" would do it justice.
Having now won their last three matches in a row, Blackadder's men look more capable than ever of challenging for this year's Super Rugby championship.
And the Sharks were no shrinking violet to beat at this stage of the competition, either. Another team may have found the going more difficult, but with key players making their returns to form and fitness at an ideal time, this outfit are entirely capable of grabbing an eighth Super Rugby title in 2014.
This time five weeks ago, it was difficult to look past the Waratahs as trophy favourites, but after bouncing back to a second-spot finish in the normal season, the Crusaders look an increasingly fine bet to complete their journey in the most poetic of ways.
Whether it's the Brumbies or Waratahs they meet in this year's final, the Sharks' fall on Saturday told us that this Crusaders line-up is as prepared as ever to write their names further into the history books.
Talent is all well and good in the right mixture, but the Crusaders continue to paint themselves as a side who thrive on heart and mental fortitude at this phase of a campaign, refusing to relent in their thrashing of Saturday's victims.
Loser: Sharks' Pack Fails to Find Its Edge
Unlike two months ago when they managed to eke their way to victory at this ground, the Sharks forwards were unable to cage their Crusaders counterparts at the AMI Stadium.
Lacking the presence of an injured Tendai Mtawarira, the visiting pack did manage to hold its own at the scrum—for the most part—but too often were they rumbled at the line-out, thus giving up one particularly big platform of their play.
And that "for the most part" is crucial in this argument, too, as substitute scrum-half Willi Heinz picked off a loose scrum in the Sharks' own 22 to score the Crusaders' third try of the game, showing that even White's greatest strength wasn't running in his favour.
Granted, even if the "Beast" were fit, the difference between the two back lines would have been too much for the Sharks to survive, but without a team's spine, the body's entire frame can't be expected to stand firm.
Despite holding a 21-kilogram advantage over their hosts, the Sharks forwards crumbled in Christchurch, not able to compete in terms of ferocity in the loose and showing an unfamiliar propensity for mistakes at the set piece.
Winner: New Zealand Territory Proves Inhospitable for Visitors
Coming to Christchurch on Saturday, no New Zealand side had ever lost a Super Rugby semi-final that they had hosted and yet more Crusaders post-season resilience kept that record alive.
The home outfit's cause was helped greatly by some sound tactical influence on Blackadder's part, but this was very much a win that came through many individual powers synchronising in the smoothest of manners.
The Crusaders were pragmatic and calm in their approach, but injected a slice of aggression in their play that the Sharks just couldn't cope with and indeed looked altogether intimidated by at times.
At the breakdown, Richie McCaw's return at blind side paid off, while Matt Todd continued to devastate as the hosts' other loose forward. Dan Carter, though, playing in his less familiar centre role, was magnificent in linking the backs with quick ball.
The visiting outfit didn't have the time to replicate such fluid play in their back line, and with Israel Dagg executing probing kick after probing kick with pinpoint accuracy, the Crusaders chipped away at their opponents' confidence, ultimately running rampant.
Nemani Nadolo also crossed the try line in the second period, providing the battering ram influence that his more elegant team-mates needed, in a fixture that failed to show many weak points on the home team's behalf.