Brian Ashby: The curious NZ Conference

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Despite the intensity, desperation, physicality and sheer excitement factor, neither the Crusaders or Chiefs produced vintage rugby. Photo / Getty Images
Despite the intensity, desperation, physicality and sheer excitement factor, neither the Crusaders or Chiefs produced vintage rugby. Photo / Getty Images

It must have been a desperately depressing weekend for all the Todd Blackadder and Mark Hammett haters. But I guess on the back of the Blues loss to the 'Canes and course the Benji saga, John Kirwan will be this week's whipping boy.

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It's a rather curious time for the New Zealand Conference. Just like our cousins across the ditch, there's only a nine point spread on the points table. This weekend's round could very well answer a lot of questions for all of the kiwi sides, with the exception of the Crusaders who are up on blocks for a week.

I was far from optimistic at the Crusaders prospects ahead of their trip to Africa, but against the logic of the form book, they came home unbeaten and then backed up with a win over Dave Rennie's magnificent fifteen at the weekend. It could be argued that they had a relatively tame draw for their South African roadie, but it could also be argued that the Crusaders season is "reverting to type" and they are suddenly genuine playoff contenders, again.

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Despite the intensity, desperation, physicality and sheer excitement factor, neither the Crusaders or Chiefs produced vintage rugby, but then perhaps that's more about the pressure that both sides endured over the 80 minutes.

The encouraging thing for the Crusaders, is that they have rediscovered how to pull through in those clutch moments. The justifiable yellow carding of Dominic Bird didn't derail them. More importantly, the non yellow carding of Mike Fitzgerald and the subsequent departure from the game of Kieran Read proved to be little more than a temporary glitch. But then as the scoreboard indicated, it's a very fine line between hero and zero.

Is it a coincidence that the fortunes of the Crusaders have improved as first five Colin Slade has grown in confidence and form. The most encouraging thing for Blackadder's battlers is that they still look like they can get better. It's hard to fault the performance of the pack throughout the campaign.

The backline continues to take baby steps forward every weekend, but if they're going to be genuine contenders, baby steps will need to grow into something a little more assertive and destructive. Next time out will see the Crusaders face the Brumbies - Todd Blackadder's MySky is likely to be in turbo mode on Friday night as he sits back to watch the Chiefs try and tame the men from Canberra.

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- NZ Herald

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