McCaw hands victory to Reds
RICHIE McCaw has carried teams of red-and-black hue on his back to countless victories, but last night he went to bed in Brisbane pondering a match in which he had played the biggest hand in losing.
McCaw gambled on referee Stuart Dickinson having a heart, but instead he wielded a club.
If you're a Crusader fan you're thinking gross injustice, if you're a Reds fan you're thinking comeuppance, if you're a neutral you're probably a little bit baffled: why did such an experienced, intelligent footy player take such a huge risk in front of his sticks while his side were clinging to a two-point lead? And what law exactly did McCaw transgress?
Plainly Dickinson, who has a hard-won reputation as one of the game's more officious whistleblowers, believed McCaw had used his hands in a ruck. Equally plainly, McCaw believed the Crusaders had already successfully counter-rucked and the ball was free to clear.
In matters of laws interpretation, there has only ever been one winner.
A distraught McCaw posed a rhetorical question that eloquently summed up his feelings ahead of fronting up to his teammates.
"You can't afford to do that, can you?" he said. "It was a good old match. I thought we played some pretty smart rugby and put them under pressure, especially in the first half.
"We perhaps didn't get the rewards we could have got."
McCaw went down the diplomatic route when discussing the performance of Dickinson.
At halftime, McCaw and his teammates talked about not giving the referee the opportunity to be a factor, so it must have been particularly painful for the skipper himself to give the Australian official his chance to shine in front of a record Super rugby crowd in Australia of 48,500.
This was the Queenslanders' 11th win from 13 matches and, despite the controversial finish, it was a stirring performance, if only for the fact that they hung tough against a fired-up Crusaders team that put them under immense pressure in the set-piece.
The visitors had the stronger scrum, though it worked against them when Will Genia scooted away for a second-half try after an impressive Crusaders shunt.
The seven-time champions also made a mess of the Reds' lineout, but in further irony it was a slick set-move off the back of the lineout that earned the Reds the first try, though it contained a dubious final transfer from Genia to Digby Ioane.
"We knew pressure would be there but we worked our way out of it," Reds skipper James Horwill said, lauding his side's fighting spirit which has taken them four points clear at the top of the table with three to play.
In a frenetic first half, both teams created chances, but blew gilt-edged opportunities to score.
For the Crusaders, fullback Tom Marshall and halfback Willi Heinz both blew tries when they inexplicably failed to connect with support players after they had made breaks.
It was not only the Crusaders being profligate. Quade Cooper missed three fairly simple shots at goal, one a sitter, and was spooked enough to turn down another kickable shot. Their lineout, too, faltered at inopportune moments.
The Crusaders would have felt a little cheated at the break. They looked menacing, but the only try they could muster was a break-out after Dan Carter stripped the ball in a tackle and Robbie Fruean put a bloodied Brent Ward over in the corner.
Genia's try after the break wrested the initiative back for the Reds, but two Carter penalties looked to have sealed a crucial win for the Crusaders.
With 58 points, the Reds have bolted four points clear of the Blues, who had a bye this week, with three rounds remaining. The Stormers are third on 52 points and the Crusaders fourth, a further three points adrift after their fourth loss of the campaign.
COOPER TAKES THE POINTS IN ROUND ONE
Quade Cooper 1, Sonny Bill Williams 0.
The two New Zealand-born superstars, who share the same manager in Khoder Nasser, met in what is expected to be the first of several ridiculously hyped face-offs this year and it was Cooper who took round one.
The hyper-talented Tokoroa-born playmaker kicked a last-minute penalty to seal the win and cement his side's position at the top of the Super 15 table.
His performance was the definition of mercurial, while Williams was strangely subdued throughout.
Cooper might have ended up the hero, but in the first half he missed three penalties, two of them simple and turned down another effort as his confidence off the tee was shot.
He was contributing in other areas though. Defending at fullback, some of his kick-return work was spectacular as Dan Carter in particular kept the Reds pinned deep with a terrific punting performance.
Cooper's approach was high-risk, but at times he made the Crusaders' kick-chase efforts look ordinary as he weaved and flick-passed his way out of strife. The huge crowd would have come expecting similar magic from Williams, but their fears were unfounded.
Williams' timing seemed off from the start. He was consistently half a step ahead of the pass and rarely got his hands free for his now trademark offloads.
In fact, it was his outside, the uncapped Robbie Fruean, who looked more dangerous when running with the ball in hand.
Williams also spent time in the bloodbin during the first half after splitting the webbing in his hand.
He plans on using the bye week to fight 43-year-old gospel singer Alipate Liava'a in Auckland to raise money for Christchurch Earthquake relief.
While the injury did not look serious, there are probably better methods of healing a damaged hand than entering a boxing ring.