Can anyone stop the Crusaders?
The reigning champions are showing no signs of slowing down, after blowing away the Highlanders, one of only two teams to beat them this year, 45-22 in the second Southern Derby last weekend.
That win confirmed the road to Super Rugby glory goes through Christchurch one way or another. It will take someone to beat them at home in the playoffs which no side has done yet – they are 7-0 at home this season with one match to play against the old rival Blues. Looking back further they are 22-2 at home since the beginning of 2016, haven’t lost there in nearly two years and haven’t yet under Scott Robertson.
The Crusaders coaching staff have got this side conditioned for relentless play. It’s the way they have finished games this season that has put other teams to the sword. They have conceded only four tries in the last twenty minutes across 15 games this year while banking 19 at the other end. Teams simply cannot last with this side.
The Hurricanes, who beat them 29-19 in Wellington, could only muster a lone penalty goal in the second half of that game. The Highlanders managed two penalty goals in the last half hour to preserve their 25-17 win. Remember the Waratahs? Up 29-0 after 30 minutes, couldn’t score a point for the next 50.
What gives them the edge to close out so efficiently?
They have used 30 different players off the bench this season, the only real constant being the backup halves pairing of Mitch Drummond and Mitch Hunt. Strike weapon Manasa Mataele has also been a regular, which allows the side to re-shuffle into a power line up for closing games. Seta Tamanivalu will move into the centres to partner either Crotty or Goodhue, bringing the opportunistic predator Mataele onto the wing. His strike rate on a per eighty-minute basis is one a game, ranking him in the top five of wingers.
The depth in the tight five gives the Crusaders quality impact from the bench. Wyatt Crockett has been a regular on the pine, along with another All Black in Luke Romano. Unheralded players like Andrew Makalio, Chris King and Ben Funnell have been able to come on and perform a job.
Some of the Crusaders best defenders are relatively unknown players – Ethan Blackadder, Ben Funnel, Billy Harmon, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Tom Sanders. These guys eat up runners with tackle success rates over 90%. All of whom have come off the bench at some point, in-and-around stars like Pete Samu, Sam Whitelock, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd and Scott Barrett. With Kieran Read back, the bench will only become more reliable.
The team’s backs are full of players with high rugby IQ’s. Byrn Hall can’t get a look in for the All Blacks but has played a crucial role, especially in wet weather games. Richie Mo’unga stock is rising but still couldn’t get a start in the French series. The midfielders Crotty and Goodhue know how to exploit outside space and run damaging support lines. Their wingers are spoiled with the rewards. Would any other team seriously consider having George Bridge on their left wing? His play has been outstanding and proves that physical dominance isn’t everything.
Smart decision-making, understanding situational rugby, a commitment to defence, unbelievable conditioning and fast ball movement are cornerstones of this Crusaders outfit.
There is only one team that arguably could mount a credible challenge to the Crusaders – the Hurricanes. They share the season’s ledger 1-1, the same as last year. The Hurricanes were the last team to beat them at home, in July 2016 before they made their own title run and were the only team to beat them last year, spoiling their perfect record. Last year, a Crusaders-Hurricanes final was one half of rugby away if not for a second-half collapse in Johannesburg.
The wet weather game in Christchurch early this year exposed the Hurricanes lack of game management. They did not play to the conditions and were blasted by the coaches for it. They need to heed the lessons of that match to be any chance. The best hope is to meet them on a dry track on a cool winters night.
With the Hurricanes likely to finish 4th after this weekend, they will need some help from below them to avoid playing in Christchurch before the final. They will need either the 2nd seed Waratahs or 3rd seed Lions/Jaguares to lose otherwise a semi-final awaits.
That is, of course, they get past the fighting Chiefs who have scrapped their way into the finals on the back of a testing season. The intensity of that quarterfinal match will prepare the winner well for a Crusaders challenge.
After beating the Lions on their home turf for the 2017 championship, another brace of back-to-back titles is for the taking. The Crusaders have proven in the past that when it rains, it pours – success fuels them on to more success.
This new Crusaders era under Scott Robertson is perfectly placed to become another dynasty – unless the Hurricanes can stop them.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass