One hard hur­dle re­mains

The Press - - Front Page - RICHARD KNOWLER

Serv­ing-up the per­fect game plan has never been so cru­cial for Scott Robert­son, the rookie coach who is just 80 min­utes away from Su­per Rugby heaven.

Cru­saders coach Robert­son is op­ti­mistic No 8 Kieran Read and tight­head prop Owen Franks can play the fi­nal against the Lions in Jo­han­nes­burg, the two All Blacks were re­placed dur­ing the 27-13 semi­fi­nal win over the Chiefs be­cause of knee and Achilles ten­don com­plaints, pro­vid­ing him the chance up to start 10 in­ter­na­tion­als for the match at Ellis Park next Sun­day morn­ing (NZT).

So that is very good news. Now Robert­son has to for­mu­late a strat­egy that max­imises their tal­ent and ex­pe­ri­ence, to en­sure the Cru­saders can claim their first ti­tle in nine years.

Be­cause the va­garies of the com­pe­ti­tion for­mat pre­vented the Lions from play­ing the Cru­saders this sea­son, Robert­son has an empty file in terms of hav­ing any first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of coach­ing against the South African side.

In­stead he must rely on footage of the Lions’ 44-29 win over the Hur­ri­canes in their semi at Ellis Park, while also ac­cept­ing there can­not be a re­peat of the way the Chiefs were able to deny his side al­most 70 per cent of pos­ses­sion and ter­ri­tory at AMI Sta­dium last Sat­ur­day night.

Call it men­tal tough­ness or just sheer blood­y­mind­ed­ness, but the fact the Cru­saders were able to score four tries while feed­ing off such mea­gre scraps against such a qual­ity side was re­mark­able.

Robert­son has moulded his lot into a bunch of fight­ers who don’t know how to squeal; his job, now, is to de­liver a blue­print that brings them the great­est prize of the lot.

And that means not giv­ing the ball away so eas­ily, as they did against the Chiefs.

‘‘We have got to look at our­selves,’’ Robert­son ac­knowl­edged. ‘‘They had a great game plan to hold the ball for long pe­ri­ods of time, and we prob­a­bly can’t do that again next week against an­other team for that pe­riod of time.

‘‘We have to be bet­ter around our game plan.’’

Robert­son, hav­ing watched open­side flanker Matt Todd lead the de­fence by mak­ing a brain­blis­ter­ing 22 tack­les, sim­ply can­not af­ford to al­low his men to get sucked into such a war of at­tri­tion against the Lions.

If the Cru­saders are again forced to make in ex­cess of 200 tack­les, they will sim­ply run out of gas in Jo’burg’s thin air.

Get­ting the kick­ing game right at Ellis Park will be a pri­or­ity. Long kicks to Chiefs full­back Damian McKen­zie sim­ply gave the wee dy­namo a chance to coun­ter­at­tack and al­low his side to hold the ball for long pe­ri­ods. Do that against the Lions, and the Cru­saders will be toast.

The enor­mity of the job at Ellis Park can­not be un­der­stated, and even if Robert­son can wring just 40 min­utes out of Read and Franks it will be a bonus.

Read left AMI Sta­dium when he ‘‘tweaked’’ a knee in the fi­nal min­utes, mean­ing the Cru­saders had to play out the game with just 14 men, but de­spite some swelling in the leg Robert­son was con­fi­dent enough to name him in his trav­el­ling squad .

The same goes for Franks. He was re­placed at half­time be­cause his Achilles ten­don, which has been giv­ing him some grief in re­cent months, had started to ache dur­ing the half­time break and Mike Alaala­toa re­placed him for whole sec­ond half.

An­other tight­head prop, Oli Jager, is trav­el­ling with squad as in­sur­ance.

For cap­tain Sam White­lock, who re­placed Read as club cap­tain this year, a win over the Lions would se­cure him his first Su­per Rugby ti­tle.

‘‘He is re­lent­less in his work ethic, un­com­pro­mis­ing and re­ally clear with the boys and what he wants off the field,’’ Robert­son said in ref­er­ence to White­lock. ‘‘Most im­por­tantly, he plays well every week.’’

PHOTO: JOHN DAVID­SON/PHO­TO­SPORT

Seta Ta­mani­valu (left) and Is­rael Dagg scored telling tries for the Cru­saders against the Chiefs in Christchurch on Sat­ur­day night to en­sure they qual­i­fied for the Su­per Rugby fi­nal.

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