Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: McKenzie looks to unlock Crusaders

Fate sends new Wallabies coach to face Super Rugby's most experienced finals team.

The Crusaders were not convincing against the Hurricanes despite their brilliant victory over the Chiefs the weekend before. Photo / Getty Images
The Crusaders were not convincing against the Hurricanes despite their brilliant victory over the Chiefs the weekend before. Photo / Getty Images

He has won Australian rugby's top job and Ewen "Link" McKenzie's next task will be to end the season for the Crusaders, the franchise where his Wallabies predecessor Robbie Deans developed and then cemented a formidable team and reputation.

It offers an intriguing twist to what was an eventful and controversial final round of Super Rugby's regular season.

The top six sides had already been decided, but finals seedings were still up for grabs and in a couple of cases those opportunities were spurned. First, late on Saturday, the Brumbies were upset 21-15 by the lowly Force in Perth and then the Bulls were swamped 30-13 by the Stormers in Cape Town. The defeats to the two frontrunners allowed the Chiefs, 26-16 winners over the Blues, to take top seeding, which qualifies them for a home semifinal in a fortnight and a final a week later if they win.

The Crusaders retained fourth place on the ladder thanks to their nervy 25-17 victory over the Hurricanes, with the Reds limping home in Sydney with an unconvincing 14-12 victory over the Waratahs.

For McKenzie, Saturday night's qualifier in Christchurch will be the first time this season they have faced the Crusaders, the team they beat in a memorable final at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium two years ago.

Similarly, due to the vagaries of the draw, in the other qualifier at Canberra Stadium on Sunday, the Brumbies will meet the Cheetahs for the first time this season. The Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs had a bye this round.

Closely-fought matches are in store if last year is anything to go by. Then the Crusaders failed to score a try against the Reds at AMI Stadium as they held on for a 15-11 win, while the Brumbies denied the Cheetahs 24-23 at home.

More recently, the Crusaders were not convincing against the Hurri-canes despite their brilliant victory over the Chiefs the weekend before. But coach Todd Blackadder is likely to get lock Luke Romano back from an ankle injury. Tom Taylor's head injury could see Dan Carter moved to second-five, which will be a blow.

The Reds will get key Wallabies James Horwill and Will Genia back this weekend and not surprisingly McKenzie, who last week celebrated winning his new role following Deans' departure, is in a confident mood. The Crusaders haven't won a title since 2008, the final year of Deans' reign.

"We now go and play the most experienced finals team of all time right in their backyard," McKenzie said after beating the Waratahs. "That's a challenge but we've had some success over the Crusaders during the past few years. We haven't played them this year so it's a good challenge to see where we are at."

Brumbies head coach Jake White, the man McKenzie beat to the Wallabies job, admitted his side went to Perth with their mind on the play-offs. "We're probably guilty of thinking about next week, we're just lucky that this loss came this week when we are still in with a shot," he said. "It was never going to be a situation where we just showed up and took the points and that perhaps is how we approached this game."

- APNZ

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