A hard task has become an especially hard task and defeat in Pretoria this week could see it become impossible for the Crusaders to make the playoffs.

In a most un-Crusader-like way, they have hit reverse at the business end of the competition and lost their aura. Fair and square, they were belted 42-14 by an impressive Stormers side and the Crusaders can't really have any complaints.

They were improved from their horror-show in Perth; the individual errors were reduced and for 40 minutes, at least, they were a genuine chance. They trailed 12-7 at halftime.

But in the second half the Stormers found a gear the Crusaders didn't have and, unless they have something hidden deep inside, the conclusion is fast forming that this year the Crusaders just aren't of the same quality as the Stormers and Bulls.

"We got outplayed tonight," was the verdict of captain Richie McCaw, who made his 100th Super Rugby appearance.

"It wasn't through a lack of trying but we came up against a pretty good Stormers team who put us under pressure. They deserved to win, there's no question about that."

And that's what is slightly alarming. This is a side with the best New Zealand has. They have a front-row the All Black coaches think is up to it - the best performed in the country.

In Brad Thorn and Chris Jack, the Crusaders have seasoned locks who know what they are doing.

The loose trio is balanced, athletic and, of course, in possession of McCaw. Carter is the best No 10 in the business and there is pace and ball players through the backline.

Yet for 40 minutes in Cape Town they were outclassed. They didn't have the right answers - they didn't know how to defeat a side that has finally shaken off its propensity for underachievement.

If the Crusaders are to salvage something from this campaign, they will have to show a depth of character that has been absent in the last two weeks. They will have to dig deep, ask how much they want this and deliver faultless, high-tempo, high-quality performances.

No one, assuming the Sharks haven't managed it overnight, have beaten the Bulls at home since the Hurricanes managed it in 2008.

The Crusaders have no choice now - they have to do it and they have to pull off a comparably difficult task of flying home on a short turnaround and defeat the Brumbies in Christchurch.

Their discipline will have to improve. Their presence at the tackled ball will have to be stronger and in Pretoria they have to be ruthless in the way they go about dismantling the Bulls' driving maul.

Against the odds, the Highlanders did them a massive favour on Friday night by defeating the Waratahs 26-10. The men from Sydney will be in Hamilton this week for another banana skin game against the Chiefs.

Just like the Highlanders, the Chiefs have struggled, giving the impression they are barely holding it all together. But the match against the Waratahs is their last home game of the season and they will be eager to give something to their fans.

There will also be a few individuals who will still have much to prove. Richard Kahui will want a couple more big games to push his All Black cause, as will Stephen Donald if he's fit.

Defeat in Hamilton will leave the Waratahs having to win their final match in Sydney against the Hurricanes. By that stage, the 'Canes may have done enough to know that, if they win, they are in.

The mix is so volatile, so convoluted, that picking the final four will be fraught with danger until the penultimate weekend cleans up the picture.

The Blues can't yet be discounted as it's not inconceivable they will pick up 10 points from their South African venture - which continued this morning against the Cheetahs.

If they do, and the Crusaders take nothing from Pretoria, the crazy thing is the Blues can finish ahead of them.