Justin Marshall 's Opinion

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

Justin Marshall: Covered stadium super showcase

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Individual game-breaking brilliance alters course of match.

Richie McCaw of the Crusaders runs into Aaron Smith of the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images
Richie McCaw of the Crusaders runs into Aaron Smith of the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images

The Saturday evening clash between the Highlanders and Crusaders was a perfect showcase of New Zealand rugby. It showed the excitement and skill levels of Super Rugby at its best.

And, on this occasion, for that we can give a huge thanks to Forsyth Barr Stadium.

As we drove to the ground to prepare for the broadcast around 3pm, we went through one of the most intense storms I have experienced. There was sleet, thunder, extreme winds and a bone-freezing cold. Every premier club match in Dunedin that day bar one was called off.

Yet the minute you walked through the stadium doors the elements were forgotten and what we got instead was a footy match of extremes, extreme quality that is.

The game had everything including a bit of aggro, which was great! right up to the final second where the match was decided by a man watching TV in a booth.

We could sit here and talk about the clinical way the Crusaders started and went about building leads, or the grit and passion that the Highlanders showed in coming back, but what really excited me was that within the framework of the match, there was still scope for individuals to show how important brilliance is in altering the course of a match.

Yes, the Highlanders showed impressive resilience, but they don't get back into that groove were it not for the game-breaking brilliance of Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith.

Likewise, the Crusaders don't win without Nemani Nadolo or Israel Dagg, whose intervention at the end won the match. Jordan Taufua, in the forwards, was absolutely outstanding.

The All Black selectors would have got a lot out of that in terms of picking match-ups. They would have noted the effectiveness of the on-the-outer Andy Ellis in his great match-up with the country's best halfback, Aaron Smith.

They would have observed Fekitoa's work against Tom Taylor and Ryan Crotty in the centres. They might also have cast an eye over the output of Shane Christie, who had the unenviable task of pitting his talent against Richie McCaw.

This was a match for the ages and one that has now catapulted the Crusaders to the top of a ridiculously tight New Zealand conference.

The second game on Saturday night was very much an after the Lord Mayor's Show-type of match. That had a lot to do with the lack of atmosphere in the stadium and the fact it was a one-sided blowout.

The Hurricanes did what only they can do, and lit up the match with a number of brilliant, long-range tries, which should only add to the confusion around why they were such an insipid mess the week before against the Highlanders.

It's been extremely dangerous writing the Chiefs off back-to-back championships warrant respect but it's difficult to see how they can come back from this.

Their success has been built around collective responsibility on defence, but there has been little of that this season. In their past half-a-dozen or so games their D has been poor. Some of their work in the wide channels against the Hurricanes was embarrassing.

They have the Waratahs next, who have a backline as dangerous as the Hurricanes. I have grave concerns for the champs.

As for the Blues, they're gone. I can't see any way back for them now.

They've become a weekly exercise in frustration.

With the injuries they have to key personnel, unless Ma'a Nonu has a blinder every week, there's nobody in that backline putting their hands up.

The rest of the season presents itself as an opportunity for Sir John Kirwan to sort out the direction and balance of the side for next season, particularly in his halves.

If there was a shining light on Friday, it was the performance of young Ihaia West at No 10. The variation of his running game appeals as something the Blues desperately need. He could get an extended run in that jersey from here on in.

- 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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