Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Are the Crusaders losing their aura?

By Crusaders' standards, they are having a troubled season. Photo / Getty Images.
By Crusaders' standards, they are having a troubled season. Photo / Getty Images.

The Crusaders have been rather thankful for the catastrophic campaign in Auckland as the dramas at the Blues have kept attention from their own parlous state.

By Crusaders' standards, they are having a troubled season. They have lost four games and although they remain very much in the playoff hunt, they don't convince as they once did as the team to back as a matter of right.

After they beat the Stormers in round eight, there was a genuine sense they were on the cusp of a serious revival. They hammered the Hurricanes the following week and at that point, they had the look of old about them: they were working through the gears, coming to life and ready to surge up the table.

But here they are now, their coach angry and warning the players he won't tolerate anymore poor performances. The stilted performance against the Reds - which they managed to win - should have been a hurry up. Instead, the players drifted further in Melbourne, playing with little urgency, accuracy or control.

It was so unlike the Crusaders and they have been so inconsistent this year, that assumptions can no longer be made.

They may not in fact be the quality team they have been in the past. It shouldn't necessarily be assumed that they will lift their performances in the coming weeks. History shows that the Crusaders are a banker to come good when it matters - that their best players play their best rugby at the business end. Historically their core values have been most obvious at the back end of the season, when the pressure comes on and the expectation is greatest.

Maybe that will happen again in 2012. Maybe we will see them bounce back with an emphatic, classy performance against the Blues. But the big difference this year is that we can no longer be sure that they will.

They should have done that in Melbourne and they didn't. They are not in the commanding position they wanted. The gap between them and the Chiefs and more worryingly, the Stormers and Bulls, is not going to be easily bridged. And even if the Crusaders do click into gear and string together a series of victories in the next few weeks, they may not be able to secure a home playoff.

That wouldn't be terminal to their ambition but it would certainly give them an enormous challenge. Cape Town and Pretoria are not easy places to win and right now, there is this sense of the Crusaders' iron-grip on Super Rugby slipping further.

They haven't won a title since 2008. That's an eternity for them and it's far from certain that the rot will be stopped in 2012. They have made things hard for themselves. Hard but not impossible and if they are to take something from this season and prevent their house coming under the same sort of scrutiny as the Blues', they need to collect five points at a canter this Saturday.

- Herald on Sunday

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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