A side that is capable of winning a title isn’t measured by its success in the early parts of a competition; it’s how a team capitalises on getting that head-start that really matters.
The Crusaders look almost untouchable right now, and they deserve that status because they’re the only side in Super Rugby to remain undefeated. But what happens between now and the June international window will make for some great reading and intense interest by media pundits and rugby fans alike.
The Super Rugby leaders now face a test that could make or break their title aspirations over the course of the next month.
After flying home from South Africa, the Crusaders’ first assignment is against the Hurricanes at AMI Stadium, followed by a second blockbuster Kiwi derby against the Chiefs in Suva a week later. After that it’s an away clash against the Melbourne Rebels, before returning home to Christchurch where the Highlanders will be waiting.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) May 10, 2017
That is three matches against high-quality Kiwi opposition in a month – can the Crusaders win all three? Current form certainly suggests so, but there is still a nagging ‘flat-track bully’ tag attached to them as they haven’t had to take on the might of the Hurricanes or Chiefs yet, while they got out of jail against a then out-of-sorts Highlanders side in Round 2.
There is little doubt of what is riding on the next month for the Crusaders, but their biggest challenge could well be first up when they take on the Hurricanes.
In terms of tries scored, the Hurricanes are ahead of the Crusaders (63-61), but more interestingly, the Hurricanes may also have the advantage in terms of on-field leadership. The Crusaders are without both Sam Whitelock (suspension) and Kieran Read (broken thumb), while the Hurricanes have senior stars TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett available.
Players like Richie Mo’unga can kick the Crusaders into contention – but it will take more than penalties to win a New Zealand derby, and the Hurricanes’ defence is a challenge to beat for what has been a fantastic Crusaders backline up until this point. Seta Tamanivalu is in red-hot form on the wing and can find his way to the tryline, seemingly from anywhere.
But the defensive skills of Jordie Barrett at the back will give the Hurricanes great hope, both for the clash against the Crusaders and other games to come. Meanwhile, the Barrett brothers’ all-round attacking arsenal – backed up by the likes of Ngani Laumape, Cory Jane and Julian Savea – is something the Crusaders haven’t encountered yet in 2017.
The travel factor in all this can’t be ignored either, and it takes its toll on even the best of sides. Flying to Suva and then having to play the Chiefs (currently second in the NZ Conference) so soon after a South African trip won’t be an easy ask, but the recent charge by the Highlanders will also give Scott Robertson cause for concern.
The Highlanders have a score to settle after a controversial late sin-binning saw them cough up a huge lead against the Crusaders in Round 2, but they come into the Round 15 meeting soon after a three-week oversea assignment.
It all makes for an exciting time for rugby fans – but the Crusaders can go a long way to putting a serious hand up for the all-important top spot in the Australasian Group, and therefore title contention, if they can get through the next month without a loss.
If they fall to their countrymen, however, it could cost them the coveted ladder position, while also denting their confidence ahead of the inevitable rematches during the playoffs.