Justin Marshall 's Opinion

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

Justin Marshall: Luck changes for in-form Crusaders

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Losing Aaron Cruden is a body blow. Photo / George Novak
Losing Aaron Cruden is a body blow. Photo / George Novak

The Crusaders clash with the Chiefs in Hamilton this weekend comes at the perfect time.

This is moving month; the period before the break for the June internationals when teams are either going to establish their playoff credentials or start to fade away.

The Chiefs and the Crusaders started the season as the two strongest New Zealand teams in most people's eyes, but they've kind of reversed each other's season: the Chiefs started off well but have really struggled over the past month, while the Crusaders are only now hitting their straps after a sluggish start.

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The Chiefs have done a good job of accumulating points, even when they haven't been playing well, but if I had to pick a winner right at this moment, I'd go with the visitors.

I sense the defending champions are starting to wobble, I really do.

Losing Aaron Cruden is a body blow.

No matter who you replace him with, suddenly finding yourself without the All Black pivot, who is your playmaker and captain, is tough to overcome. There was not a lot of rhythm in what they did in barely overcoming the Rebels at home and Cruden's absence had a lot to do with that.

They could also be without Brodie Retallick, who failed a concussion test. That's your playmaker and the leader of your tight five missing against an improving Crusaders.

Andy Ellis said he thought the tour was exactly what the Crusaders needed after their unimpressive start. After collecting nine points against the Lions and the Cheetahs, I'd say the Crusaders got everything they needed out of the trip and more. They have had a chance to bond, to establish combinations and the points in the bag get them back on an even keel after they dropped two games at home.

They wouldn't have enjoyed conceding 31 points, but sometimes when you play the Cheetahs, who play such an expansive, open game, you just have to take your poison and move on. The key is to score more points and they did that comfortably.

The Crusaders again look a threat and poised just outside the playoff spots they are ready to strike.

It's an intriguing time of the season. The Highlanders and Hurricanes have strung a couple of wins together and the Blues are there or thereabouts still. Like I said, this is the month where playoff dreams will start to take shape or fade away.

Force one to watch
Speaking of playoff dreams, something pretty special is starting to take shape in the far west of Australia.

The Force, with five wins on the trot, are the form team of the competition and it's great for the game.

I sense many are starting to adopt the Force as their second-favourite team and it's easy to see why. They have become a compelling watch and on Saturday I found myself fixed to the TV, willing them to beat the Waratahs.

Even with all the wins on the trot, it's still habit to view them as the underdogs and to wait for them to collapse but right now they look like genuine playoff contenders.

They deserve our admiration and they deserve the crowds that are starting to pour into nib Stadium.

- 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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