Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Teams locked in tight contest

Only five points separate the top and the bottom New Zealand teams but Gregor Paul fancies the resurgent Crusaders.

Malakai Feketoa has impressed for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images
Malakai Feketoa has impressed for the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images

In a topsy-turvy weekend that delivered an unexpected win for the Highlanders and a royal thumping for the Chiefs, it was arguably the resting Crusaders who were the biggest winners.

The New Zealand Conference is shaping as the tightest in the current format's four-year history - with just five points separating top from bottom.

The competition is screaming out for one side to take control and it is the Crusaders, who have a run of home games, growing confidence and momentum, as well as the prospect of Richie McCaw returning, who look best placed to do it.

Having been horribly out of sorts in the early rounds, the Crusaders are now attacking with variation and potency and defending with the same bite as their champion teams of old. They convince at the moment in a way no other side does.

The Chiefs' lineout has collapsed and their clinical edge has been missing so long, no one can be confident they will find it any time soon.

They face their first crisis of the Dave Rennie regime, having won only one of their last six games.

They miss a bruising presence in their midfield and the confidence and direction the injured Aaron Cruden brings. Still, they remain in the thick of it and three of their next four games are at home. If they can scramble through to the June break, they will fancy they can regroup with the return of Cruden.

In a weekend of little making sense, it was the brilliance and dynamism of the Highlanders winning in Durban rather than the capitulation of the Chiefs in Canberra that was the bigger surprise.

The Highlanders are building some impressive momentum, having beaten the Rebels and Bulls and now the Sharks in their last three encounters. The two Smiths - Ben and Aaron - are in exemplary form and are being ably supported by Lima Sopoaga, Richard Buckman, Sean Treeby and Shane Christie.

But the man who is making the biggest impact is Blues reject Malakai Fekitoa, whose incredible solo try midway through the second half killed any prospect of a Sharks comeback.

Their schedule looks the toughest with two clashes against the Crusaders and a trip to Sydney to come, but if they can keep Fekitoa fit, they will at least have hope.

While the Hurricanes are in form, they face two trips across the Tasman and three local derbies before June, which is why it is the Crusaders who look best-placed to take control of the conference.

Never before have all five teams been in contention this deep into the season. This is unprecedented for the conference format which came into being in 2011. In that first year, the Chiefs had won only three of their 10 games at the corresponding stage and were out of the running.

In 2012 the points gap between the first-placed Chiefs and bottom-placed Blues after 11 rounds was 32 points. Last year there was a 25-point gap separating the Chiefs from the Highlanders at this stage.

- Herald on Sunday

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