Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders the current playoff kings

Crusaders used to rule knockout rugby but have not beaten a Kiwi team since 2008.
Lima Sopoaga and the Highlanders have shown an ability to step up when it counts in the past two seasons. Picture / Getty Images
Lima Sopoaga and the Highlanders have shown an ability to step up when it counts in the past two seasons. Picture / Getty Images

No team can match the Crusaders for playoff experience - or even get close. But while the men from Christchurch were once almost invincible in knockout games, they have slowly lost the art of winning in recent years.

Those who habitually think of the Crusaders as the most likely winner when there's little to separate the remaining teams should maybe reconsider. They are a good bet to beat the Lions - partly because their record at Ellis Park is good and also because they still know how to win early-round knockout games.

But they have lost the art of winning semifinals and finals and have not beaten a New Zealand side in a playoff since 2008.

In the first era of Super Rugby from 1996 to 2010, when the competition was a straightforward round robin with the top four qualifying for the semifinals, the Crusaders were like the German football team. They would find a way to win - home or away, it didn't matter, the chances were high that the Crusaders would bring the right mix of graft, intuition, creativity and level-headedness.

In that first phase, they played 21 playoff games - a remarkable statistic in itself as the maximum they possibly could have played was 30. Of those 21 games, they won 16 - which included seven finals, two of which were away. They lost two other finals in 2003 and 2004 and didn't lose a semifinal until 2009.

But the picture changed when the competition shifted to a conference format in 2011. The Crusaders continued the art of qualifying for the finals - their only blip being last year - but became less likely to win once they got there.

They haven't won a title since 2008 and a playoff winning record that sat at 70 per cent between 1996 and 2010 has dropped to 55 per cent between 2011 and 2015.

Bad luck has been a factor and explains some of the transition. The earthquake which devastated Christchurch in 2011 left them homeless and their effort in reaching the final that year was miraculous. It was, possibly, one game too far, though, and they couldn't muster the energy they needed to beat a good Reds side in a sticky Brisbane.

In 2014, they were denied the title by a bad refereeing decision. Craig Joubert would later ring the Crusaders to apologise for penalising Richie McCaw in the last minute - a decision that allowed Bernard Foley to kick the three points the Waratahs needed to claim their maiden title.

In 2012 and 2013, they were outclassed by the Chiefs in Hamilton, a story that has become familiar in the past five years, particularly so in 2016, as all four Crusaders defeats have been inflicted by New Zealand teams.

That's the worry for them - when it comes to the biggest games against the best teams, they no longer bring the right mix or find a way to win. They have lost the perception of infallibility under pressure and the confidence with which the Hurricanes played in Christchurch last week conveyed their conviction they had nothing to fear.

If New Zealand has a new playoff supremo, it is possibly the Highlanders. They haven't had the same exposure to knockout football as the Crusaders but they have won three of their four playoffs since 2011. The Highlanders' case isn't so much built on numbers, though. What gives them an aura is the way they tactically adapted through the playoffs last year, stayed so composed and lifted their game to a higher level in three consecutive matches.

This year, they've shown a similar ability against the toughest opponents. Last week against the Chiefs, they scrambled on defence, held tough for long periods and pounced when they had barely half a chance.

It brought them their sixth straight win against the Chiefs and a quarter-final with the Brumbies which assistant coach Tony Brown said they've been anticipating since last year.

"Our boys love playoff games. We've been working towards this since December, so we can't wait to go and have a good crack at going back-to-back," Brown said.

- NZ Herald

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