Season Review 2003
by Rob Wallace
1 Jun 2003
The S12 final was a great game between the 2 best teams in the competition and the Blues managed to take their chances and win 21-17.
There wasn’t much between the teams in this game and both teams played well – hardly anyone had a poor game and there was top defensive work from both sides. As Thorne and Deans commented afterward, the Crusaders had their opportunities and didn’t take them.
The crowd would have helped the Blues a lot – the last 3 weeks of the competition saw very atypical crowds for Auckland – normally quiet, polite and filled up with noisy opposition supporters – but the recent crowds have been staunchly pro-Auckland, very vocal, and there was an atmosphere at the final that I haven’t seen since the early days we had the Shield in the late 80′s. A real buzz of excitement, and sort of hum around the ground.
The Crusaders pack owned the first half, and their tacking was awesome as they smashed the Blues backwards with 2 on the tackle and stopped any momentum dead. The Blues only survived due to Spencer’s kicking game – he reels off yards more distance than most other players and that and sound defence left things pretty even.
But the first 20-25 min of the second half was quite different and the Blues pack began to get ascendancy at the ruck and maul and managed a bit of go-forward ball. But the backline never really cut loose – the Crusaders’ defence was too good, especially in midfield where the Blues got very little penetration.
The Crusaders came back strongly in the last 10 minutes but it was too late and some tenacious defence from the Blues meant they held on to take the title.
It’s been a very interesting season for the Blues. They played the most exciting rugby of the competition and scored the most tries and most points, and showed that you can both entertain and win. But they also had the best defensive record and it has been the defence that has won them both the NPC and S12 titles. They also brought through a large group of talented young players and I hope they continue to introduce new talent.
Player of the year was obviously Carlos Spencer who is in the best form of his life, and controlled all facets of the game and showed some sublime touches. But he had a great group of players around him also, and a backline that suited his style and wanted to work with him
My forward of the year was Gus Collins who worked tirelessly near the ball and provided the glue for the forward pack. The other player who had made a huge difference is Meeuws, who since his return has provided the forward solidity that has been missing from Blues teams for a few years. Other players who had outstanding seasons were Williams, Mealamu, Muliaina, and of course Howlett. Braid, Manu and Woodcock found the going a bit tougher at S12 level than NPC but all played well, while Angus MacDonald looked quite at home there and will have a big future at blindside.
It was a mixed picture for the other NZ teams. The Crusaders pack slowly wound into top gear and look the best in the country, but injuries and lack of real wheels meant the backs never really capitalised on that.
Colin Cooper managed to turn a novice/journeyman tight 5 into a pretty decent unit, but they were not good enough to hold on to the top teams up front and lost out despite their stellar loosies and midfield.
The Highlanders looked to be well positioned and were playing a Mains-style conservative game that was well suited to their strengths, but internal ructions led to changes in personnel and style as they messily imploded over the last few games.
The Chiefs never had the players to compete at the very top, and Greene was unable to perform the sort of miracles that Cooper did with the ‘Canes, and the Chiefs suffered for this. They were competitive, scored some nice tries and were seldom hammered but never quite had the skill or toughness to close out games.by