Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Big questions for losing duo

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Our new rugby columnist on where the Blues and Crusaders went wrong in their season-opening defeats.

Liam Messam celebrates after the Chiefs' victory. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Messam celebrates after the Chiefs' victory. Photo / Getty Images

It is easy to write off the Crusaders' loss to the Chiefs on Friday as a bad night in front of the posts, but for me the Crusaders' concerns should run deeper than that.

It's true the Crusaders left a lot of points on the field with poor goalkicking, but what should worry them more was their inability to open the Chiefs up despite a massive edge in possession and territory. Put aside Sam Whitelock's moment of individual brilliance and the home team barely looked like scoring a try.

The Crusaders did not use width effectively and that's what should concern Todd Blackadder and his coaching staff more than Tyler Bleyendaal's radar.

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Contrast the Crusaders' performance with the ball in hand to that of the Chiefs. They had limited possession but they seemed to be able to break the Crusaders' defensive line a lot more easily. Aaron Cruden made a couple of breaks, Robbie Fruean scored a brilliant try and they should have had another on the counter-attack when Cruden knocked the ball on over the line.

One of the big questions before the season started was whether the Chiefs were the modern-day Crusaders and Friday's performance was more evidence that they are. The Chiefs did to the Crusaders what the Crusaders have done to countless teams down the years: winning based on a watertight defence and almost disregarding possession and territory statistics.

They have developed enough self-belief to win games with a lot of things going against them.

Liam Messam celebrates after the Chiefs' victory. Photo / Getty Images
Liam Messam celebrates after the Chiefs' victory. Photo / Getty Images

The Crusaders are going to have to find something. When Daryl Gibson was there they had quite a bit of creativity on attack.

Now their only creativity seems to involve stacking the backs in the midfield, something that rarely seems to work.

Further south, the Highlanders were extremely clinical in beating a disappointing Blues side. With few stars, I said the Highlanders needed to be cohesive to shake the losing habit and that's what they were. They played with tempo and accuracy.

The number of times they were able to create space on the outsides was impressive. It wasn't as if they were doing anything fancy.

They controlled the ball in the middle of the park and then it was basic catch-and-pass to find holes. Patrick Osborne's try was a great example of that: catch and pass, catch and pass.

It's the sort of game plan the Blues would do well to emulate. Their strength has to be their outsides. They have so much talent there they don't even need overlaps, just opportunities for their guys to go one-on-one with the opposition. Yet on Saturday we too often saw Charles Piutau trying to work magic with multiple defenders in front of him. That's asking too much.

It was a great win for the underdog Highlanders and as long as the Blues take some lessons out of this it doesn't have to be a horrible result for them. It's a long season and this is just one game.

The Blues' Charles Piutau makes a break against the Highlanders in Dunedin. Photo / Getty Images
The Blues' Charles Piutau makes a break against the Highlanders in Dunedin. Photo / Getty Images

At this early stage, however, it's too much for the Blues' game plan to revolve around the game loosening up so their brilliant individuals can create tries.

I'm afraid that's not going to win you championships.

So after week one, New Zealand's two most successful franchises, the Crusaders and Blues, have work to do, while the two-time defending champs look not to have missed a beat in the off season.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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