When the two finalists of the 2011 Super Rugby tournament ran onto the field last night the only people confidently picking a favourite were the bookies. And the bookies were the only people to be wrong. This was a game that wasn’t decided until the final whistle blew, and even then it took a moment for the result to sink in. Then the players, the staff and the predominantly Reds crowd went berserk.
The week building up to this final was perhaps the strangest I have ever witnessed. There was a feeling of great anticipation among rugby followers in Queensland. The feeling was that we could be on the cusp of something great. In the way of that dream becoming real were the legendary Canterbury Crusaders. A team of undeniable talent steeped in a culture of teamwork and winning. Both sides believed they should be favourites for the match but neither were willing to write off the other’s chances. The coaches, staff, players and fans had nothing but praise for both sides. There were no bad guys in this final. No player the fans love to hate. No game plan to disagree with. This was a feel-good rugby final.
Major questions remained for both sides.
For the Reds, the scrum and lineout were major issues. Could they win enough clean ball to set the inside backs up with front-foot ball? Could Cooper match Carter at fly-half? Could the Anthony Faingaa and Jono Lance-led defence contain Williams and Fruean? Would Cooper’s kicking be online tonight?
For the Crusaders, the Reds halves were the major issue. Could they contain Genia and Cooper? Could they take lineout ball away from the four peaks of the Queensland lineout? Could they contain the Reds’ counter-attack from kick returns and turnover ball?
52,117 turned out to watch this match — a record Super Rugby crowd in Australia. Few went away disappointed. Although the game never reach great heights as a spectacle it was enthralling from start to finish. The game started tentatively; both teams seemed unsure of themselves and there were long periods of play where both teams simply ran at the brick wall of the other’s defence to see if there were any chinks in the armour. One notable thing to come out of the first 30 minutes was referee Bryce Lawrence’s refusal to penalise anything at the breakdown.
Thirty minutes in, Lawrence broke with his policy and pinged Dan Carter for lying in the ruck. Cooper slotted the shot and the Reds were up 3–0. The Crusaders scrum was dominant as predicted but their lineout had broken. Corey Flynn lobbed three crooked throws in a row. The Reds’ defensive line was immense. Players were throwing themselves at tackles and bouncing off the ground to get ready for the next one.The ruck was fiercely contested by both sides.
After some good build-up work, Carter received the ball 25 metres out from the Reds’ line. He ran hard at Beau Robinson and Anthony Faingaa, two of Queensland’s best defenders. As he reached them he calmly dropped the ball on his foot, glided between them, regathered and scored, and then converted his try. It was a classy move by one of the great players of the last decade. The Crusaders led 7–3.
Shortly afterwards, Cooper fielded a kick on his own forty-metre line, ran the ball back to the half-way line and popped a nothing kick over the defensive line. On his run-through he tangled with Brad Thorn’s outstretched leg and fell. Lawrence awarded the penalty, Cooper kicked truly at it was 7–6 at half-time.
Less than a minute into the second half the Crusaders had chance to score again. Williams and Fruean got through the midfield defence but Fruean’s last pass to Maitland was high and behind his right shoulder and he knocked on with line open. Two minutes later the Reds had a chance. Cooper threaded through Carter and Williams and threw a pass around the back of Williams with Davies looming. The pass fooled everyone! Davies didn’t have time to react and didn’t touch the ball, but he was through the defence 20 metres out with two men outside him.
After Digby Ioane knocked on the Crusaders mounted an attack that led to Brad Thorn barging over 15 metres to the right of the posts with Reds all over him. He may be the only person who knows if he scored or not. The referee and TMO agreed there was not enough evidence to award the try. A 5-metre scrum was awarded to the Crusaders. The scrum collapsed, a penalty was awarded and McCaw called on Carter to shoot for goal. The kick was good and the lead was out to 10–6.
At 50 minutes, Genia fielded a kick on the Crusaders’ 40-metre line. He moved it to Cooper who immediately hit Ioane running into open space. Digby ran through the Crusaders’ midfield to score behind the posts. Cooper made the kick to give the lead to the Reds, 13–10.
In the 54th minute Rob Simmons played the ball offside and set the Crusaders up for a shot 45 metres out, right in front. Carter kicked truly to even the score: 13-13 with 25 minutes to go. The Crusaders’ scrum was still dominating but the Reds were still stealing their lineout ball. Both sides had short periods of dominance in the ruck and maul but neither was able to sustain supremacy.
The next try was, for me, the high moment of the final. The Reds had turnover ball 60 metres out from the Crusaders’ tryline. Anthony Faingaa popped the ball to Genia who ran right, propped and accelerated through a hole next to the ruck. Kahn Fotuali’i, on as a replacement for Andrew Ellis, decided to try an ankle tap instead of a diving tackle, and came up with clean air. Genia was past the forty-metre line and Cooper loomed up on his left in support. Cooper’s presence held Sonny Bill Williams and Zac Guildford off, leaving Sean Maitland to deal with Genia. With 10 metres to go Genia stuck out an arm to fend off Maitland’s tackle and momentum carried them both over the line. Cooper’s kick missed to the left. The score was 18–13 to the Reds with 10 minutes left.
The Crusaders then needed a score. They didn’t panic, they just started contesting everything. The Reds knew they need to hold onto the ball to win. They started contesting everything. The Crusaders drove over rucks, Radike Samo stole a lineout. The ball changed possession a dozen times. Both teams could have won it, both still wanted it! And that’s how it ended. The Crusaders simply ran out of time. Both teams fought till the final whistle, but the Reds came out the victors and 2011 Super Rugby champions.
Congratulations and thanks to the Reds’ players and staff. For me, as a fan and ticket-holder of many years, this year has been by far the most pleasurable.
And a huge thank you from GAGR and me to Brad Thorn: 17 years in both rugby union and league playing for the Broncos, Maroons and Kangaroos, then the Crusaders and All Blacks, then the Broncos and Maroons again, and then the Crusaders and All Blacks again. You have always carried yourself with dignity and have played hard but fair. Thank you — it has been a pleasure watching you.