Flying Fainga'anuku symbolises Crusaders' resilience against Blues

Leicester Fainga'anuku was a threat all evening against the Blues at Eden Park.

There was a moment during the second half of the Crusaders’ thrilling 34-28 victory over the Blues at Eden Park last night when Leicester Fainga’anuku, in attempting to put his side on the front foot inside his team’s territory, charged into Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and sent the former Warrior flying backwards.

It seemed symbolic at the time because of Tuivasa-Sheck's defensive capabilities, but more so after the match because Fainga’anuku, a two-Test All Black last year who scored a hat-trick of tries against the Blues, including a stunner when running on to a brilliant Richie Mo’unga cross-kick and outsprinting his old mate Tuivasa-Sheck, did it all despite carrying a rib injury into the match.

If anything personified the Crusaders’ desperation to win the grand final re-match against the Blues and reassert their championship potential after an untidy start to the season, it was in Fainga’anuku’s disregard for his body and indeed the pain he must have been in.

It was also there in the way Mo’unga, occasionally brilliant again on attack, put his head in dark and dangerous places in the hope of stopping a Blues’ attack. It was there, too, in Ethan Blackadder’s extraordinary workrate and Sam Whitelock’s game intelligence and utter commitment.

“It was really important for a number of reasons,” coach Scott Robertson said afterwards of the victory which takes his side’s record for the season to 2-2. “We wanted to make sure we owned the position we’re in.

“We set the standard. This is what we’ve got to be like. We had a repeat of the semifinal round one [a defeat to the Chiefs] and repeat of the final round four. It’s a helluva start. That’s our standard from now on.”

This was one of the games of the season due to the intensity both sides brought to the clash in perfect conditions in front of a crowd of more than 23,000, and the closeness in ability of both.

It burnished an already long and distinguished rivalry touched on before the match when players from the 2003 title-winning Blues team were re-introduced to the crowd. Their opponents for that grand final at Eden Park 20 long years ago were of course the Crusaders.

The visitors had gone into this one without the injured Fletcher Newell, Jack Goodhue, David Havili and Will Jordan (migraine issues), but the performances in particular of midfielder Dallas McLeod and converted fullback Fergus Burke mean they lost little on either side of the ball.

McLeod was outstanding at second-five and Burke wasn’t far behind him at the back.

Of Fainga’anuku, Robertson said: “He’s a power athlete. He can create, he can keep his feet. He gives you those extra metres post-contact. He’s a try-scorer – one of those when you’re watching those kids score five or six in a game and everyone else is sort of fumbling round behind them, and he brings it to this level.

“We’re really pleased for him. He’s carrying a little bit of a rib injury and he just played through that pain incredibly well.”

Blues prop Alex Hodgman receives treatment on his shoulder injury at Eden Park.

The Crusaders were helped hugely by the injuries to Blues props Alex Hodgman (shoulder dislocation) and James Lay (ankle) within the first quarter which put into motion “golden oldies” scrums and the requirement for the Blues to play with 13 men for 10 minutes.

Ofa Tu’ungafasi was unavailable for the match due to concussion and Nepo Laulala, a replacement last night who enjoyed an eye-catching clash with opposite Tamaiti Williams, requires a rest soon due to the All Blacks’ load protocols.

That could happen as early as next Sunday when the Blues host the Force which means the Blues will have to dig deep into their stocks of reserves.

“Losing is never easy,” said Blues skipper Dalton Papali’i. “We’ve built something with the Crusaders and every game with them is tough to lose.

“I can’t fault our effort. We got over twice and dropped the ball. It’s little moments like that we need to execute, they can change the game. We’re there, but we just need to tweak a few things.

“It’s not panic stations. We’re pretty happy with the way we’re playing. It’s just those little moments.”

Coach Leon MacDonald said: “We’re bitterly disappointed not to get the win but I feel we are getting better. I can see it in the way we’re training and the way the leaders are stepping up throughout the week. There’s still plenty of good stuff we can be proud of there.”


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