Chris Rattue 's Opinion

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Lift in their games puts Kiwis in NRL and Super 15 hunt

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Chad Townsend of the Warriors dives over to score a try during the round 18 NRL match against the Parramatta Eels. Photo / Getty Images
Chad Townsend of the Warriors dives over to score a try during the round 18 NRL match against the Parramatta Eels. Photo / Getty Images

Don't laugh, especially on the league angle. But the weekend signalled that a New Zealand Super 15 and NRL double is on.

It had been shaping as a mediocre year for Kiwi footy title hunting, especially when the South African Sharks were humming in the Super 15. But the second seeded Crusaders, with a revised playing philosophy that is clicking through the gears, are primed to win their first Super title since 2008. And while there is a long way to go in the NRL, the Warriors can now be rated among the contenders with a lot more going for them than most.

Pinpointing the turning point for the title-free Warriors is simple. Andrew McFadden's appointment, after the April sacking of Matthew Elliott and subsequent failure to find a willing "super coach", is turning into a masterstroke.

Plotting the Crusaders' reversal to the good is tougher and their erratic ways have continued almost to the end of the regular season.

But Kieran Read is close to firing on all of his considerable cylinders, and the energy their forwards showed against the Highlanders is a warning to the other finalists. They are by far New Zealand's best hope, with all the respect due to the double champion Chiefs.

The Highlanders aren't a great yardstick at this point and - unlike the Crusaders - will go into the finals on a downward curve. They have punched way above their weight and for longer than many of us thought possible, but their fairytale heroics have knocked the stuffing out of them. They look shot. If the Highlanders want to remain in the leading pack the squad needs bolstering next year. However, the Crusaders were very impressive in dismantling their southern rivals.

Without wanting to pick on a family, an over-abundance of worthy Whitelocks was a sign post to the Crusaders' lingering problems. They needed to add punch and have done so. The late starting Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo leads the charge but is by no means the only new power avenue on attack.

Coach Todd Blackadder is still playing with fire in his backline. The Crusaders' interchangeable pivot system - with Carter, Colin Slade and Israel Dagg capable as early receivers - is lively but means the great Carter can't exert full influence from central control, something an overseas grand final in particular might require.

Their forwards showed tremendous energy and confidence on Saturday night, vital ingredients at the business end of the season. They have the best pack in the competition in terms of combining power, set piece command and flair.

If the Crusaders make the final, they will not have far to travel if the top seeded Waratahs also make it through. The Waratahs are revelling in their entertainers' "brand" but Read and co can chew them up.

One hates to tempt fate with the Warriors, but under McFadden they no longer need omens. Prospects looked promising from the moment McFadden, who was Elliott's assistant, took over as coach - initially on a caretaker basis. Parramatta are not the finest yardstick either, especially without Jarryd Hayne, but the Warriors were superb in a crushing victory.

The magical Shaun Johnson is delivering, at long last, in a hard-nosed reliable way.

The big news is the rise of the uniquely creative Feleti Mateo, whose motivation and fitness have been all over the place in a career both fabulous and frustrating.

Sam Tomkins gives the Warriors a jack-in-the-box string to their creative bow. They've got extreme power, speed and strong utility cover in the likes of Ben Henry. Maybe more than any other club, they can turn to a few styles.

Most of this was lying dormant and even the much admired Ivan Cleary had trouble unlocking all of the creative elements.

Maybe McFadden is the man who will set up the dynasty - one that is usually rather than surprisingly in title contention - that the Auckland club was supposed to be.

- NZ Herald

Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Read more by Chris Rattue

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