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

Rugby: Another Crusaders' win-loss yo-yo away from home could force questions

Todd Blackadder. Photo / Getty Images
Todd Blackadder. Photo / Getty Images

Ellis Park, that bastion of South African rugby, is where the Crusaders will undergo a severe test of their spirit tomorrow morning.

And, if they do find a way to win against the Lions, who are unbeaten at their Johannesburg home this season, without their talisman Kieran Read, they will have to do it all over again the following week in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs. Time is running out for Todd Blackadder's men, who have made it a habit of scrambling a victory first-up in the republic, and often against the odds, only to turn in a half-hearted performance a week later.

In 2011, a Crusaders team already missing injured All Blacks Ben Franks, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock and Andy Ellis beat the Stormers 20-14, despite losing four backs - Israel Dagg, Kahn Fotuali'i, Sean Maitland and Adam Whitelock - in the first half.

The following week they lost 33-20 to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein despite the return of Franks, McCaw and Carter.

Last year the Crusaders followed gritty away victories over the Sharks and Stormers with a shock loss to the Force in Perth. It cost them any chance of overtaking the Chiefs as New Zealand conference leaders.

How Blackadder must wish he could have the services of McCaw (broken thumb) and Carter (sabbatical) tomorrow. Read's withdrawal with concussion is a huge blow and first-five Colin Slade has yet to find his feet at his former franchise after his return from the Highlanders.

The mood within the camp won't be anywhere near as pessimistic as that among many of their supporters or the media looking from the outside in. But after losing three games in their first five - with two losses at home their Christchurch fortress has been well and truly stormed - the Crusaders can't afford to drop many more.

In their favour is the fact that the competition is so even this year no team looks like true championship material. The Crusaders will still fancy their chances of making the play-offs but if they don't then everyone within the organisation must be put under the microscope, administrators included.

Scraping their way into the play-offs over the last five years has meant nothing has been done to challenge the status quo. That won't apply if they don't make the business end of the competition. Even if they do, major questions must be raised, and publicity-shy mining magnate Brent Francis, who has underwritten the franchise licence, could be the person to ask them.

Spare a thought, then, for referee Marius van der Westhuizen, from Cape Town, who will make his debut at this level in controlling tomorrow's match. A fortnight ago, South African Stuart Berry hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, but somehow wasn't demoted, for his performance in the Lions' controversial 23-20 victory at home over the Reds.

Here's hoping van der Westhuizen plays a supporting role, rather than a starring one. There are no 'neutral' referees in this competition anymore but it's a tough gig to get first up.


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