OPINION: Who would bet against the Crusaders?

Early season talk of the fading empire is quickly evaporating into a distant memory and last night’s 57-29 thrashing of the Reds made it seem slightly laughable.

With first five-eighth Colin Slade transformed and Richie McCaw playing like a young tyro, the pieces are falling into place for a side that is suddenly fourth on the Super Rugby ladder.

Coach Todd Blackadder’s side have now won more games (seven) than any of their Kiwi rivals and have genuine momentum after consecutive wins over the Lions, Cheetahs, Chiefs, Brumbies and Reds.

Slade has shifted into top gear as he steers the Crusaders in the absence of Dan Carter, whose sabbatical was seen by many as a potentially insurmountable hurdle for his Super Rugby franchise.

A week after a sit-down with All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, Slade kicked 11 out of 11 goals in Brisbane for a haul of 27 points and threw in some audacious offloads for good measure.

Beat the competition leading Sharks with a bonus point in Christchurch next week and the Cru-Sladers may well sail past everybody and take their place on top of the heap.

The enigmatic Blues aside, these are heady times for the New Zealand teams with the conference leading Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes all in the playoff picture and the unfancied Highlanders hanging around in seventh place.

Some decisive Kiwi derby matches loom, starting with the Hurricanes and Highlanders on Friday, in what will be a mighty scrap for playoff berths.

Kiwi hopes will also be influenced by whether the Force, winners in Bloemfontein, can continue their unexpected run, and if the Waratahs and Bulls can come home with a wet sail.

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is already thinking ahead as his side ease into the bye on the back of their clinical 32-20 win over the Blues in New Plymouth.

Rennie and his fellow coaches will also get a chance to refresh after putting in a couple of days of solid analysis of the Hurricanes, whom they play in Wellington in a fortnight’s time.

“If you look at it, the Waratahs were probably the best team in the competition in the early stages and it’s probably been the Hurricanes in the middle part of the comp, so on their day they’re both pretty impressive,” Rennie said.

“But we’re well aware of that – it’s good for us. We know we need to be at our best to get wins over those two sides, so we’ve got a big couple of weeks ahead of us.”

Rennie said the Hurricanes were the New Zealand side that offered the greatest attacking threats.

“They’re a very good side, they’re playing really good footy, they’re obviously really confident and they’ve pretty much got a full squad to pick from so I would say of all the teams in the competition – and I know they got tipped over by the Waratahs recently – but those are the two sides with the capability of knocking over anyone at any time.”

While the Highlanders mull injuries to openside John Hardie and lock Josh Beckhuis as well as one week suspension to key prop Chris King, and the Blues wave goodbye to injured fullback Charles Piutau (knee), the cavalry are arriving for the Chiefs.

Key backs Aaron Cruden, Charlie Ngatai and Asaeli Tikoirotuma are all due to return after the bye, while centre Robbie Fruean, who has been sidelined with heart problems, is due to play club rugby in Waikato either this weekend or next.

Halfback Augustine Pulu and lock Ross Filipo, though, will not be back until after the June test window, while tighthead prop Ben Afeaki’s long recovery from the concussion suffered in week one continues.

The Blues have dipped to 10th place but coach John Kirwan is refusing to concede his side’s playoff chances are over.

“I’m not concerned, really,” he said. “We’ve got two home games now and then the rest of the season, so we’re there or thereabouts.

“It would have been nice to win and we are under pressure because they will go into the break with the points and we go in without them.

“We just have to make sure we get home, lick our wounds a bit and make sure we win those two home games and get back on the horse.”

– Fairfax Media

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About Martin Myers
Music Supervisor / Artist and Talent Manager / Publicist / Music Exchange Founder / Owner Triple M Entertainment

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