Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Desperate Crusaders not lacking motivation

Crusaders captain George Whitelock has admitted they were their own worst enemies against the Force in Perth. Photo / Getty Images
Crusaders captain George Whitelock has admitted they were their own worst enemies against the Force in Perth. Photo / Getty Images

The Crusaders perform best when they play with desperation and a burning sense of injustice, so the Highlanders would be advised to prepare to dodge the metaphorical kitchen sink in Christchurch tonight.

For coach Todd Blackadder's team it's all about their mindset - for whatever reason they have struggled in the past few seasons to beat the so-called weaker teams away from home, yet they play with such ferocity when they are in danger of being left out of the play-offs picture.

Having won only three games from seven this season, they are in danger of that happening this year, although the competition is so tight there are bound to be more surprises.

The Crusaders' loss to the Force in Perth came with a fair dose of bad luck - a theme which can also be attached to their reverses against the Sharks in Durban and Hurricanes in Wellington.

A case could be made for both of Luke Romano's disallowed tries against the Force to have been awarded. The first was ruled out by a forward pass (and fair enough, but it appeared to be two phases back which is out of the television match official's remit) but the most obvious was his second after the lock went over in a maul.

Referee Jonathan Kaplan suggested to the TMO that he thought Romano had brushed the goal-line with the ball and asked if there was any reason why he couldn't award the try. When the TMO said it was inconclusive, Kaplan failed to follow protocol or even logic when disallowing it.

The South African also raised the Crusaders' ire with his scrum penalties against a clearly dominant Wyatt Crockett. But, as captain George Whitelock admitted afterwards, they were their own worst enemies. The numerous handling errors were simply not good enough.

So, no lack of motivation against the Highlanders tonight, but what exactly is it about the Crusaders' traditional desperation that helps them win games?

It can be clearly seen in two areas - line-speed on defence and, related to that, the willingness to put in dominant tackles, plus aggression when carrying the ball.

Injured No8 Kieran Read is an expert in both of these areas, but even allowing for his continued absence with a toe injury, his teammates can and should follow his example. Direct ball-carrying will boost them massively after the endless side-to-sidemovement in Perth. Their victories at home against the Bulls and Kings showed that directness.

The only match in which the Crusaders have been well beaten this year was their opener against the Blues in Auckland.

The good news for them is that they are back home, where they tend to do their best work, and they are up against a Highlanders team which is in a very deep hole and seemingly with few ideas about how to climb out.

Coach Jamie Joseph's team, who have travelled to Christchurch with no wins from seven matches, have the competition's worst attacking record. Only the Kings and Rebels have conceded more points.

It is a record which suggests they will struggle at AMI Stadium, but, even if the Crusaders win handsomely, the question remains: Can they keep replicating that desperation?

Crusaders v Highlanders

Christchurch, 7.35 tonight

Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Tom Marshall, Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Tyler Bleyendaal, Andy Ellis, Luke Whitelock, Matt Todd, George Whitelock, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett
Reserves: Ben Funnell, Joe Moody, Dominic Bird, Jordan Taufua, Willi Heinz, Tom Taylor, Adam Whitelock.

Highlanders: Ben Smith, Tony Ensor, Jason Emery, Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Hayden Parker, Aaron Smith, TJ Ioane, John Hardie, Jarrad Hoeata, Josh Bekhuis, Brad Thorn, Chris King, Andrew Hore (c), Tony Woodcock
Reserves: Liam Coltman, Ma'afu Fia, Jamie Mackintosh, Elliot Dixon, Fumiaka Tanaka, Colin Slade, Jake Paringatai.


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