The Crusaders drew 23-all with the Western Force at AMI Stadium tonight, with Todd Blackadder's men showing a big improvement from last weekend's disappointing defeat by the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The score was 20-6 to the Crusaders at halftime, but the Western Force improved markedly in the second half and fullback Leon MacDonald's sinbinning in the 65th minute, for allegedly tackling a Force player in the air, hurt the defending champions.

MacDonald, back from a shoulder injury picked up in the round one win over the Chiefs, was an important cog in the Crusaders backline machine, and his 10-minute absence took its toll.

The Crusaders began the match in a positive fashion and played with a lot of enthusiasm. They outscored the Western Force three tries to two but with Stephen Brett kicking only three goals from eight attempts, they couldn't turn their possession and territory into points.

Second five Ryan Crotty, in his first start for the Crusaders, played very well and he was on the scoreboard after 11 minutes with a try in the left corner.

Good runs from flanker George Whitelock, hooker Jason Macdonald and flanker Kieran Read put the Crusaders hot on attack and a great skip pass from Brett put Crotty over.

That made the score 8-3 after Brett and Force first-five Matt Giteau had traded early penalties.

The Crusaders were soon on the scoreboard again, with Tim Bateman, Crotty's midfield partner, scoring a five-pointer after a Brett through-kick was knocked on by Force fullback Drew Mitchell and Bateman picked the ball up and scored after it rebounded off a post. It took a while for the TMO to give the try but it was duly awarded and Brett added the extras to make it 15-3 to the Crusaders.

Giteau pulled it back to 15-6 for the Force with a penalty but then Isaac Ross scored the Crusaders third try. A strong midfield scrum from the Crusaders put Bateman and Crotty on the front foot before a series of passing movements between Thomas Waldrom and Colin Slade, playing on the left wing, led to Ross going over in the corner.

Brett missed the conversion but the score was 20-6 and things were looking up for the Crusaders who were attempting to snap a three-match losing streak.

Giteau opened the scoring for the Force in the second spell with a penalty to make it 20-9 but the Crusaders went straight back on attack and a late tackle on fullback MacDonald had Brett kicking a penalty and the score was 23-9.

A superb cover tackle in the corner by Force fullback Mitchell on Slade prevented a Crusaders try and the Force hit back with a try to substitute wing Haig Sare which was converted by Giteau. That made the score 23-16 and the momentum was with the Force.

MacDonald's sinbinning by referee Marius Jonker a call described by Blackadder as "50-50" followed, and the Crusaders were up against it.

Another break by the outstanding Giteau led to a try to second-five James O'Conner and the score was locked at 23-all.

Brett had an opportunity to kick three points for the Crusaders with eight minutes to go and from a handy angle but he missed and the chance was gone.

Skipper Read said afterwards: "I thought we had a great first half. It (drawing) is pretty tough to take. Our performance was a lot better than last week's. But it's an 80 minute game and we can't afford to let our concentration slip and drop off tackles.

Asked about Giteau's influence on the game, Read added: "He's a quality player and he showed that tonight."

Head coach Blackadder said: "I'm pleased that we came out and actually played tonight. We played some of our best rugby of the season but I'm disappointed that we let it slip and let them back into it. At critical times we didn't put them away."

Of MacDonald's return to the Crusaders backline, Blackadder said: "He gave our backs immense confidence. His ability to attack and just his presence was a real boost for us."

For the Crusaders, flanker Whitelock shone in Richie McCaw's absence and try-scorer Ross had a big game in the second row.

Waldrom again carried the ball well, as did Read, who had one of his best games of the season for the Crusaders.

Brett, back at first-five after spending the last three weeks at fullback as cover for MacDonald, showed some good touches. His running to the Force defence line created opportunities for the Crusaders.

Crotty and Bateman looked good in midfield and MacDonald made a big difference at the back.

Giteau was a class act at 10 for the Force and fullback Mitchell was dangerous running the ball in broken play. No 8 Tamaiti Horua also got through a lot of work.

Coincidentally, the 23-all scoreline was the same when the two teams first met - in Perth in 2006.

The Crusaders next game is against the Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday night.

Crusaders - Tries: Ryan Crotty, Tim Bateman, Isaac Ross. Pens: Stephen Brett 2. Con: Stephen Brett.

Force - Tries: Haig Sare, James O'Conner. Pens: Matt Giteau 3. Cons: Matt Giteau 2.

HT: Crusaders 20-6


1. Wyatt Crockett
2. Jason Macdonald
3. Bronson Murray (17. Owen Franks 62nd minute)
4. Brad Thorn (18. Ross Filipo 62)
5. Isaac Ross (19. Nasi Manu 69)
6. Kieran Read (c)
7. George Whitelock
8. Thomas Waldrom
9. Kahn Fotuali'i (20. Tyson Keats 69)
10. Stephen Brett
11. Colin Slade
12. Ryan Crotty (21. Hamish Gard 77)
13. Tim Bateman
14. Adam Whitelock
15. Leon MacDonald

Reserves not used:

16. Dan Perrin
22. Blair Cook