Rugby: Loss puts heat on Crusaders

By Wynne Gray

Kieran Read of the Crusaders in action during the match against the Cheetahs. Photo / Getty Images
Kieran Read of the Crusaders in action during the match against the Cheetahs. Photo / Getty Images

Cheetahs 33 Crusaders 20

Superb one week, mixed the next. The Crusaders are not alone in that form fluctuation though they have less tremors than most teams.

However, their blip in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs yesterday has added extra pressure to a campaign which has already carried more heat than any other.

The February earthquake has forced them to play all their games away so there is a relentless travel slog even when they are in New Zealand.

Then star midfielder Sonny Bill Williams became the latest victim in an already extensive casualty list when he hurt his knee.

Looseforward Richie McCaw and first five-eighths Daniel Carter were reunited for the first time this season, but their appearance could not create victory. They did survive, though, and unless they seize up on the trip home, should be in action again this weekend.

Defeat leaves the Crusaders a bonus point victory behind the Blues in the New Zealand pool, with four games left.

They play the Chiefs and Reds before their bye then finish with derbies against the Blues and Hurricanes.

Conference winners are assured of home final matches. Two of them with the highest number of competition points also earn a bye in the first week of the finals.

The Crusaders return from South Africa this week and then have to travel away again to Napier to play the Chiefs who flipped the game and their form on its head against the Stormers.

It will be after midnight tonight and an exhausting trip home from South Africa when the Crusaders reach their own beds.

They will have a spell of two days, one training run then head up to Napier for Saturday's meeting with the Chiefs.

At some stage the medics will review their playing resources.

Williams may be ready and lock Brad Thorn is reported to be belting through the gym work as he recovers from his hamstring injury.

There were murmurs halfback Andy Ellis would be in the frame after recovering quicker than expected from his broken thumb. Lock Sam Whitelock, who hurt his ankle, is jogging but still two to three weeks away from being ready.

The Crusaders' stumble yesterday was matched by the Stormers who built a sizeable lead and were then blown apart by their own issues and a revitalised Chiefs side.

Two wins on the trot and now the Crusaders, it is an assignment the Chiefs should relish after revealing some of the sting they had hidden for too many rounds.

The Stormers meet another weekend victim, the Blues, at Eden Park on Friday night.

The Stormers, Sharks and Waratahs are in the top six on the overall points table and have all played a game less than the leading trio - the Reds, Blues and Crusaders.

After one loss in nine games, the Stormers have suffered successive losses to the Crusaders and Chiefs with the Blues next to fancy the hat-trick.

The Stormers look to have some leeway with games in Australia against the misfiring Brumbies and Rebels before they return home.

The Blues want to return to the winning rostrum before their bye but have further backline selection issues.

The team's Facebook page was inundated with complaints from punters about five eighths Stephen Brett's work against the Reds.

Brett's continued choice has become an issue for coach Pat Lam and his selectors and the last two modest productions may force a change.

The alternatives would be to shift Luke McAlister in a place, use utility Lachie Munro or call up Gareth Anscombe from the wider training group.

However, Benson Stanley's concussion may cause another rethink. His younger brother Winston has recovered from his own concussion but has not played a game for the Blues this season while Aaron Bancroft has been with the wider training group.

Whether that means a reprieve for Brett will be known midweek.

- NZ Herald

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