Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Breaks fall for ominous Crusaders

The result at Eden Park was perfect for the Crusaders who have the conference exactly where they want it as the Super Rugby season takes an untimely international break.

The conference has fallen into the Crusaders' lap over the weekend. Photo / Getty Images
The conference has fallen into the Crusaders' lap over the weekend. Photo / Getty Images

Strange business this Super Rugby competition. It takes a three-week break now and yet it's in the hiatus where it has previously been won and lost.

Chances are high it will be the same deal in 2014. The team that copes best with the whole not-playing business will be the team that tops the New Zealand conference.

And right now, who would bet against the Crusaders? The conference pretty much fell into their lap over the weekend.

The Chiefs imploded for the second week running, the Highlanders pulled off one of the great comebacks only to spoil it all with one maddeningly stupid decision to kick the ball away in the last minute and the Blues popped into the phone box, slipped their undies on outside their shorts and played heroically well to beat the Hurricanes.

The result at Eden Park was perfect for the Crusaders who have the conference exactly where they want it. Two of their remaining three games are at home but, perhaps more importantly, they have the advantage of a game against England during the break.

It's the perfect scenario. There's time for them to have a rest, prepare and then enjoy a big occasion and then time to recover. Most of their first-choice pack will be well occupied in June playing for the All Blacks and Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, who due to injury have had light workloads to date, should ensure the Crusaders go up a gear at exactly the right time.

It can't be said with any conviction that the Chiefs shouldn't be written off. The defending champions don't appear easily fixable. It's not like a bit of glue, a few new spare parts and a lick of paint will have them back in shape.

Nope, their issues run much deeper and even supposing Aaron Cruden regains his best form and avoids having bits of him broken off by the English, and even supposing Liam Messam comes out of that same series in top shape and Brodie Retallick maintains his excellent standards and Sam Cane starts delivering to his potential, there is still little prospect of the Chiefs igniting.

Their defence has become a massive problem - the key strength in their last two campaigns. It has all-but given up the ghost in 2014. The Chiefs have conceded an average of more than 24 points a game - that's only marginally less than the Rebels and Lions and not compatible with their ambition.

Their lineout is a rabble but, really, the soft underbelly of their team is the midfield where they haven't got the right mix or results.

They are desperately missing Sonny Bill Williams. They are desperately missing Robbie Fruean and without that punch, that ability to damage teams with explosive power in the middle of the park, the Chiefs know their only route to glory lies in the trickier traverse of coming in through away games in the knock-out rounds.

That route is probably the only one open to the other three franchises as well. It's massively reassuring on one level that the Hurricanes have reverted to being the Hurricanes - capable of being brilliant and awful at short notice - but it also means they can't really be seen as a serious contender.

If fate had been less cruel, the Highlanders would have picked up 10 points in the last two weeks instead of four and they would be running in on the shoulder of the Crusaders.

Fate was cruel, though, and with the Waratahs and Crusaders away on their play-list, the Highlanders have the dreaded look of seventh about them.

As for the Blues ... if they had three home games left, then maybe. More likely, however, they will end up at least one win short.

- Herald on Sunday

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