Super Rugby Pacific: Bye week provides mixed blessings for resurgent Crusaders after first win

Now they are finally off the 'schneid', the Crusaders immediately hit an unintended speed bump that threatens to slow any momentum they have gathered from their first win of the Super Rugby Pacific season.

After starting with five consecutive defeats - the worst start ever by defending champions and their worst start as a franchise - the Christchurch-based side showed tremendously heart to overcome the Chiefs 37-26, despite a growing casualty list that claimed acting captain Mitch Drummond before kickoff.

For almost 24 hours, they are off the bottom of the competition table, at least until Western Force make the dreaded trek to Lautoka to face Fijian Drua on Saturday afternoon.

Hooker George Bell races 50 metres to score a try against the Chiefs.
Hooker George Bell races 50 metres to score a try against the Chiefs. Photo credit: Getty Images

That tunnel that offered no light for six weeks is just a little less dark right now.  

"It feels really nice, obviously," admitted coach Rob Penney, whose credentials as Scott Robertson's replacement were being seriously questioned.

"Just so proud of all the group, the organisation, the people in the back office... people that turned up today on a cold night, they didn't have a great reason to turn up, the way we've been going, but the boys just fed off the crowd support.

"There's no doubt it's been simmering. I think we just got a bit more courageous in our attack and a few things stuck.

"The emotional energy was there - it's been there for a while. When you play a team like the Chiefs, with great history and tradition there... we probably had the emotional energy over them for the reasons we know, so it was great to be able to get the result and finish it out."

Sadly, the Crusaders must now wait two weeks to build on the palpable relief within their camp, as they enjoy a bye next weekend.

"It is what it is," said Penney. "I think the boys would love to play tomorrow, but they are due to freshen up.

"It has been a challenging couple of months, no doubt about that, emotionally in particular.

"They dug deep today, they can recharge and refuel, and be very proud of themselves, but we can't get too excited, it's just a start, and we need to repeat that time and time again."

The bye will allow some of those walking wounded missing in recent weeks to return for their next fixture against NSW Waratahs. Foremost among those are All Blacks loose forward Ethan Blackadder, first-five Fergus Burke and loose forward Christian Lio-Willie, with internationals Scott Barrett and Codie Taylor not far off.

After losing Robertson and assistant coach Scott Hansen to the All Blacks, and several of their championship core to offshore contracts, the brutal start to their campaign has seen the Crusaders depth - on and off the park - exposed, but under pressure, several have shown they are ready to take the next step with more experience around them. 

"There's been a lot of comments about our attack and it was nice to see the boys expressing themselves," said Penney. "[Defence coach] Matt Todd's got to take a lot of the credit for the other side of the ball.

"The first set was something like a 20-phase attack that they threw at us, they didn't make the gain line and we turned the ball over. That set the tone for us really, it was that [defensive] set right at the start that allowed us to get the confidence and belief."

Cullen Grace scores a try in the corner against the Chiefs.
Cullen Grace scores a try in the corner against the Chiefs. Photo credit: Photosport

After their embarrassing lineout display against the Blues six nights earlier, forwards coach Dan Perrin turned that performance around against the Chiefs.

Among those to stand out in victory were halfback Noah Hotham - who was promoted to the No.9 jersey, when Drummond fell ill - lock Jamie Hannah and hooker George Bell, who logged a 80-minute shift and found the legs to outsprint the Chiefs backs over 50 metres for a try just after halftime.

"Just admire him," admitted Penney. "I think he came into this campaign with 30 minutes under his belt as a Super player and that's his third 80-minuter, just because we've been a little bit hit in that hooker position and we weren't in a position today to make changes for change's sake.

"Belly has had to ride it out again and did a teriffic job. He'll just be better and better for the experience he's getting now."

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