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Analysis: How the Crusaders hurt the Hurricanes with their classy kicking game

Scott Robertson’s side used a variety of kicks to cause major problems in Wellington.

THE CRUSADERS DON’T tend to kick more often than other teams – they’re roughly on the average for kicks in play in Super Rugby in recent years – but they do kick with more quality than their rivals.

We got another reminder of that yesterday as Scott Robertson’s side returned to action in Super Rugby Aotearoa after sitting out the first round on a bye weekend.

codie-taylor-leads-out-his-team-before-the-game The Crusaders returned in impressive fashion. Source: Photosport/Marty Melville/INPHO

The Crusaders’ 39-25 victory was closer than it should have been as they struggled with the stricter refereeing interpretations and gave up 15 penalties, as well as having lineout issues, but there was immense class in the rest of their performance.

They kicked the ball in play 24 times and squeezed lots of class into those efforts in an area of the game that greatly helped them towards their five-try win.

Robertson and co. wouldn’t have been satisfied with some of their exit kicks from inside and around their own 22 on a windy day but the Crusaders’s kicking performance was largely superb and had nice variety. 

The platform for the their second try came from two intelligent kicks, the first from out-half Richie Mo’unga.

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The Crusaders often use kick passes like this one inside their own half as a method of exploiting space.

It’s clearly a good decision in this instance, as the Crusaders have worked into position to counter-attack after a long box kick from Hurricanes scrum-half TJ Perenara.

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With the ball still in the air above, we can see fullback Will Jordan [blue above] moving across to support left wing George Bridge as he gets set to field the ball.

Right wing Sevu Reece [red] is working infield to offer himself as an option should Bridge pass to his right, while centre Braydon Ennor [yellow] moves towards the touchline to provide width as Reece goes infield.

As Bridge [white below] catches the ball and turns, we can see that centre Jack Goodhue – who has worked straight back down the pitch – is already signalling the opportunity to the Crusaders’ right. 

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Bridge opts to carry and Jordan helps to clear out at the ruck, while Mo’unga has worked back into position as first receiver and also identifies the opportunity.

The Hurricanes defence is narrow after chasing Perenara’s kick upfield and we can see that Reece [red below] is also communicating the chance.

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Mo’unga could obviously pass to Goodhue here but the fastest way of getting the ball into the clear space is through use of the boot.

The All Blacks out-half perfectly calibrates his kick, firing it cross-field with a low trajectory to ensure Reece can accelerate forward and gather it without excessively breaking stride.

Initially veering away from retreating Hurricanes wing Ben Lam after catching the ball, Reece then steps back infield and links to Goodhue with an offload. Goodhue almost instantly follows up with another excellent kick, this time a grubber. 

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Kicking immediately on the back of a regained kick can often be ideal, given that the opposition defence is already stretched after the first kick. Goodhue’s decision here is smart again.

Even before Reece has offloaded the ball, we can see that Hurricanes fullback Chase Tiatia [white below] is advancing up from the backfield due to the running threat.

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By the time Reece offloads to Goodhue, Tiatia is up in the frontline of the defence, meaning there is space in behind.

Goodhue cleverly finds it and immediately places the Hurricanes’ second backfield defender, Jackson Garden-Bachop [yellow below] under immense pressure.

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With Tiatia having turned to chase back, Garden-Bachop has to cover lots of ground from his initial position on the right of the Canes’ backfield.

Garden-Bachop gets to the ball first and slides down onto it with Goodhue applying chasing pressure, meaning the Hurricanes out-half carries the ball into touch.

An attacking lineout just outside the 22 is a prime opportunity for the Crusaders thanks to those excellent Mo’unga and Goodhue kicks. They duly convert the chance on eighth phase through – you guessed it – a clever kick assist.

Hall Assist

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As we can see at the very start of the clip, referee Brendon Pickerill is playing an advantage to the Crusaders but scrum-half Bryn Hall’s decision and execution on this kick to score mean it is far from being simply a 50/50 play on a free shot.

Again, the kick expertly takes advantage of the Canes’ defensive situation.

As we can see below, fullback Tiatia [white] has been drawn up towards the tackle just before Hall’s kick.

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Garden-Bachop [yellow above] has dropped in behind the frontline but is over on the right-hand side of the backfield and doesn’t move to cover across.

Scrum-half Perenara [red below] had been sweeping behind on the previews phase but he is also drawn up towards the ruck just before Hall opts to kick.

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This all means that there is space in behind again and Hall does an excellent job of exploiting it.

Again, the work of players around the kicker makes his life easier. Ennor [red below] has held the width again and will get a five-point reward for his patience.

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Mo’unga [yellow above] has worked around the corner, while fullback Jordan [white] makes a huge effort to get across to the right-hand side too.

Jordan’s presence helps to keep the Hurricanes defenders up in the frontline, worried about the passing attack.

Instead, Hall scoots to the right of the ruck and after initially shaping to pass, grubbers in behind.

Dropping the ball from below his hips in order to get it down onto his foot as quickly as possible, Hall also tilts the ball back towards himself in order to kick through it and get the forward roll he wants.

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As with Goodhue’s kick, Hall connects with the inside of his foot, striking the top of the ball to begin that end-over-end rotation that will help the ball to sit up as it bounces.

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That’s exactly what happens as Ennor uses his impressive acceleration to glide onto the ball ahead of the despairing Lam, sealing a Crusaders try that results from three superb kicks in the space of two minutes.

Robertson’s men scored their next try from a kick too, with Jordan pressuring the Canes into an error.

This time, the kick is a hanging garryowen over Tiatia just after Jordan has gathered an exiting kick from the Canes fullback on the bounce.

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Having retreated and with little obvious running opportunity in front of him, Jordan swiftly opts to go to the air and chase the ball himself.

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Jordan makes an excellent connection with the ball, sending it up into the air for more than four seconds, allowing himself lots of time to chase.

The Hurricanes will have been disappointed that Jordan got through their defensive line so easily in this instance.

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Jordan is free to run straight through without deviating his line in the slightest and the Hurricanes will feel they should have done a better job ‘escorting’ him here, subtly impeding him as they worked back towards the ball.

Instead, the likes of Lam simply stand and watch Jordan haring through after his kick.

The lack of work ahead of the ball leaves Tiatia more exposed and though Jordan is never in a totally realistic position to regather the ball here, he does a fine job of making Tiatia’s life more difficult.

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As we can see above, Jordan gets off the ground and adds to the pressure on Tiatia, but without being sloppy and making contact that might result in a penalty.

Tiatia doesn’t get his ‘cradle’ tight, meaning his elbows are spread out slightly too wide as he looks to gather the ball in and that allows it to bounce down between his arms as it rebounds off his chest.

Even just creating a sense of anticipation of contact for Tiatia is enough from Jordan and the knock-on results.

Typically, the Crusaders are clinical in finishing the chance as loosehead prop Joe Moody and Jordan combine to send Goodhue over, as we see from 2:55 in the video below.

Source: All Blacks/YouTube

In the second half, we saw Mo’unga deliver another demonstration of the variety to the Crusaders’ kicking game as he used an advantage to chip the ball behind the Canes defence from a scrum.

Scrum

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Jordan gets into an offside position ahead of Mo’unga as he anticipates the chip but David Havili holds his chase enough to be onside and then regather the ball on the bounce.

Nothing comes of this and play comes back to the penalty advantage, but it underlines the Crusaders’ awareness and willingness to exploit space through a variety of kicks. 

After the Hurricanes have levelled the game at 25-25 with just over 15 minutes remaining, it’s fitting that another sharp Crusaders kick helps them back in front and on towards their victory.

This time, the kick comes from a clever set-piece play. 

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The Crusaders start with a lineout on the left around 30 metres from the Canes tryline and initially maul infield. 

It might look like a completely ‘off the cuff’ decision to then bounce back into the short side with Bridge and Mo’unga, but there is clever thinking involved in this. 

Indeed, the Crusaders actually attempted the same tactic earlier in the game, only the ball was passed to Mo’unga and his grubber kick was slightly too long, crossing the dead-ball line just before Bridge could reach it, as we see below.

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So what is it that the Crusaders were aiming to exploit?

We can see the Hurricanes’ defensive set-up at the lineout before Mo’unga’s grubber kick below.

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Right wing Wes Goosen [red] swaps into the defensive frontline in place of out-half Garden-Bachop [yellow, offscreen] who slots in behind the lineout.

Scrum-half Perenara [blue] occupies the five-metre channel, while fullback Tiatia is positioned out wide on the left to defend against possible kicks in that direction.

The Crusaders maul doesn’t make headway in this instance but it does get infield to leave a sizeable blindside for the attack to swing back into, with Bridge having remained there and Mo’unga [white below] moving across late.

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Goosen [red above] reacts and also shifts across but Crusaders scrum-half Hall is crucial in scooting away from the maul to pose a threat himself.

With Hall, Mo’unga and Bridge all surging forward, Garden-Bachop [yellow below] advances up to help Goosen and Perenara mark up on the Crusaders trio.

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However, that leaves welcoming space in behind for Mo’unga to make a late, late grubber kick just as he receives the ball from Hall and Garden-Bachop closes in on him.

We can see below that Canes fullback Tiatia [white] has far too much ground to make up as he attempts to cover across.

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Fortunately for the Canes, there is slightly too much weight on Mo’unga’s kick and the ball just about beats the pacy Bridge to the dead-ball line.

The Hurricanes get a 22-metre drop-out but the Crusaders aren’t dissuaded from exploring this space again.

Just over 20 minutes later, from a very similar position on the left, Robertson’s men go after it again.

The defensive set-up is essentially the same from the Hurricanes initially, albeit with Kobus van Wyk and Billy Proctor having replaced Goosen and Tiatia, respectively.

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The Crusaders maul manages to gain about five metres this time also trundles infield again, leaving a big blindside for Mo’unga [red below] and Bridge [white] to sweep back into, having both initially loaded on the openside.

Sweep

On this occasion, Hurricanes number eight Ardie Savea [pink below] has held off the maul in the blindside channel to help Perenara and Garden-Bachop.

React

On top of that, we can see that van Wyk [red above] has reacted to the blindside play by taking off in behind the defence to cover the kick space as Garden-Bachop again closes up.

Crusaders replacement scrum-half Mitchell Drummond passes to Bridge this time and the wing is the one to put in the left-footed grubber.

Van Wyk’s anticipatory run has left him in pole position to regather the ball [red below] but even with that defensive adjustment, it’s still a very nasty place to be – sprinting back down the pitch to gather the ball under pressure metres from your own tryline.

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That pressure the Crusaders have created with their kick contributes to a poor decision from van Wyk as he is confronted by the hard-chasing Mo’unga and Bridge who combine to tackle him towards touch.

Van Wyk throws a loose offload infield – rather than accepting the concession of a close-range lineout – where Drummond gathers it and throws a beautiful offload of his own to Mo’unga, who finishes past the slow-reacting Perenara and Savea.

Clearly it takes a Hurricanes error here, but the kick pressure created by the Crusaders through Bridge’s grubber and the excellent chase leaves the Hurricanes in a tricky spot.

With an excellent Drummond pass rewarding a superb running line from Havili for a fifth Crusaders try soon after, Robertson’s side seal their deserved victory. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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