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

5 ways the Crusaders have lifted their game since low of Blues defeat

On-fire Crusader Sam Whitelock made Stormer Andries Bekker look silly in Cape Town. Photo / Getty Images
On-fire Crusader Sam Whitelock made Stormer Andries Bekker look silly in Cape Town. Photo / Getty Images

1 Mentality

The Crusaders tend to start slowly and you can't start much slower than a bye and five-tries-to-nil thrashing at the hands of your greatest rivals the Blues. Criticised for lacking a ruthless edge in that loss in Auckland and the last-gasp intercept debacle against the Hurricanes in Wellington, the Crusaders have since thrashed the Bulls and Kings at home and edged the Stormers away. The latest victory was against the odds - without the injured Kieran Read, Israel Dagg and Dan Carter (paternity leave), they lost Owen Franks and Johnny McNicholl in the first half but overcame an 0-11 deficit to win 19-14. They defended their line for the last three minutes or so. The mentality is most definitely back.

2 Game plan

The much-promised up-tempo style fell flat against the Blues - mainly because their forwards weren't up to it. It flickered into life in the six-try win over the Bulls in Christchurch and seven-try demolition of the Kings a week later before pragmatism took over in Cape Town and they played a territorial game based on set piece pressure.

They harried and hassled Springboks lock Andries Bekker in the lineout - forcing the Stormers into losing seven throws. Bekker, talked up beforehand as one of the best players in the world, was made to look silly by Sam Whitelock.

3 Forward march

The Crusaders' set piece superiority hasn't always translated into points over the past few years but it has in the past three weeks. But, just as importantly, the breakdown has improved to the point where the backs are getting the ball and space to stretch defences. The forwards are also carrying the ball much more effectively. Many thought they would struggle in Kieran Read's absence but others have upped their game to fill the gap. The Whitelocks deserve a pat on the back here.

4 Whitelocks

Flanker George is having one of his best seasons ever, as is All Blacks lock Sam, while Luke, the youngest at 22, is proving to be an excellent replacement for Kieran Read. Adam has bounced back from throwing that intercept pass against the Hurricanes to also play his part in the three wins. George still gives away penalties but there are few better in New Zealand at the breakdown and Sam, who has played 39 tests, is still improving. His pass put Matt Todd under the posts at Newlands.

5 Back-up

The recent performances of Willi Heinz and Tyler Bleyendaal have been significant. Heinz is shining this year and last weekend repaid Todd Blackadder's faith handsomely. Bleyendaal - the former NZ under-20 skipper - had his best game for the Crusaders in Cape Town. He missed only one shot at goal and his - and Heinz's - tactical kicking was superb. Tasman loose forward Jordan Taufua is also one to watch.


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