Crusaders shrug off the Lions

All-conquering Super 14 leaders the Canterbury Crusaders shrugged off wholesale changes to their line-up to thrash bottom-placed Golden Lions 31-6 in Christchurch on Saturday.

With their novices to the fore, the unbeaten Crusaders took maximum points as they reversed a 3-6 deficit at half-time to run in four tries in the second half and extend their competition lead to seven points over the Coastal Sharks.

Although the Crusaders were rested from having a bye last week, a mounting injury toll and mid-season wear and tear forced coach Robbie Deans to stand down more than half the regular run-on side.

Starting without high-profile players including Daniel Carter, Richie McCaw, Leon MacDonald and Brad Thorn, and with Reuben Thorne taken off injured after 20 minutes, it was a gamble that took 40 minutes to bear fruit.

The Lions, with nothing to lose, started as the dominant side and kept a hesitant Crusaders outfit pinned in their own half, although they could not breach the defensive lines.

Instead, the first-half scoring was restricted to penalties, two by Lions halfback Chris Jonck and one to the Crusaders’ rookie flyhalf Hamish Gard.

The turning point in the game came just before half-time, when Lions wing Rayno Benjamin was yellow-carded for blatant interference from an offside position.

With a one-man advantage the Crusaders piled on 11 points in the opening stages of the second half, going from 3-6 to 14-6, as they gave away the kicking game and played more with the ball in hand.

Gard landed two handy penalties and Sean Maitland scored the first try down the right wing where Benjamin should have been defending.

The Crusaders then hammered home the advantage with three quick tries in a six-minute burst, from hooker Ti’i Paulo, left wing Caleb Ralph and halfback Andrew Ellis.

Ellis’s try was one of the stand-out moments of the season. It started with a Crusaders’ counter-attack from inside their own 22 and the ball passed through 10 pairs of hands before Maitland was stopped on the line and Ellis took the ball from the ruck to dive over a pile of players for the try.

Regular Crusaders hooker Corey Flynn, who came on to captain the side for the the last quarter, said the six-times champions had shown the depth of quality in their squad with the way the young players had performed.

“They’re up on the big stage now and they’re really starting to perform well and they’re going to be exciting players in years to come,” he said, while acknowledging there were obvious jitters at the start.

“At half-time we really had to take a look at ourselves. The Lions came out and really gave it to us in the first half, so I’m pleased that the boys came out in the second half and did what we said we would do.”—Sapa-AFP

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