Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: NZ teams tracking well

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Hard to be overly critical of our franchises even though some are facing tough odds.

Gareth Anscombe played well for the Chiefs but their campaign could implode. Photo / Getty Images
Gareth Anscombe played well for the Chiefs but their campaign could implode. Photo / Getty Images

With Super Rugby steamrollering into the second half of the competition, and all five New Zealand teams playing overseas opposition, this weekend was an ideal opportunity to get a gauge on how each side is tracking.

Generally, most of the New Zealand franchises will be happy with where their campaigns are at.

In chronological order, the Blues were first up and in many ways the most impressive of the New Zealand teams in dispatching the Reds.

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Ma'a Nonu, again, was outstanding. Last week, I talked about how important Nonu had become; how his straight running had re-established rhythm in the Blues backline, which had become guilty of shovelling the ball on and waiting for an individual to do something brilliant.

Nonu's running and passing game seems to have solved that. He's direct when he needs to be, and when he's called on to make decisions, he's making the right ones.

The Blues game plan is starting to manifest itself around their strengths and they are in a position to make a real playoff push. They have one significant hurdle to get over in learning how to win away from home.

They must get to the bottom of why their form spikes so high at Eden Park and dips so low anywhere else. They can monster everyone at home but from here on in it won't be enough to make the playoffs unless they sneak a couple of wins on the road.

There's no great secret to how the Crusaders are going to play for the rest of the year. Coach Todd Black-adder will be hoping to ride that exceptional forward pack all the way to the final, harnessing it with Colin Slade's confident game management.

The Crusaders front five is awesome, the best in the comp. Now they have Richie McCaw back and Kieran Read still to come, it's a formidable, smart pack.

There are going to be times they are under the pump, particularly away from home, but having McCaw back will make a big difference. He'll have an answer for most problems.

My one concern with the Crusaders is that lack of an X-factor player in the backline. If they find themselves behind late, have they got an individual who can turn the game for them? If I'm being totally honest, I don't think they have. But they're fearsome front-runners as they showed against the Brumbies.

The champion Chiefs? Well, there's not much you can say about them at this stage other than they're surviving. It took them a while to break down the Lions, but they got it done quite comfortably in the end.

We once lauded the depth they had assembled in their squad, but at the moment it is being stretched to breaking point. Unless they get some of their walking wounded back, I can see their campaign imploding.

Gareth Anscombe was superb on Saturday night in Hamilton, but they still miss Aaron Cruden's qualities. This is a team right on the edge.

The Hurricanes will feel mortified that they are leaving Sydney with nothing to show for their endeavours.

This was a high-quality game of rugby that left me thinking it would not be a huge leap of imagination to picture them playing again later this year.

But to do so, the Hurricanes are going to have to tighten up their defence. They gifted the Waratahs that match when they did enough early on to be in a position to shut it down.

Some of the stuff Beauden Barrett and co were doing with the ball in hand to create opportunities was fantastic, but collectively they fell asleep on defence.

Even captain Conrad Smith was guilty of rushing up and getting exposed. It was so uncharacteristic. He's great at holding and pushing attacks out wide to non-threatening areas, but he seemed to catch a bit of panic from the rest of his team.

Don't write the Hurricanes off though. There's no team better at creating opportunities.

Finally, the Highlanders.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but there will be some happy faces on that plane back home to New Zealand, despite the one-point loss to the Stormers in Cape Town.

They have taken seven points out of Africa and if they were offered that before they left Dunedin, they would have bitten your hand off to get them.

They're looking good, with some superb individual efforts from halfback Aaron Smith and Centre Malakai Fekitoa leading the way.

The one concern would be they ran out of gas in that last 15 minutes and the Stormers dominated, but the Highlanders are coming home to the Lions, which should get them back in the groove.

So at this point, it's hard to be overly-critical of any of the New Zealand teams. That's a nice spot to be in.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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