As they haven't played a New Zealand team since their round two demolition of the Blues, it's hard to get a read on where the table-topping Crusaders are really at in terms of their title chances, but that is likely to change on Friday when they meet the Highlanders.

A win in Dunedin will cement their position at the top of the standings, with the Chiefs unable to reply this weekend due to their bye. Even a defeat for the Crusaders wouldn't be that damaging given the points they have amassed with their eight consecutive victories; an emphatic, bonus-point victory for the Highlanders would move them to 37 points, the same as the Crusaders and Chiefs, but the Crusaders' superior points differential would likely keep them on top.

Todd Blackadder's team, without their former stars Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, have been flying under the radar this season, and that's probably just where they want to be - away from the hype and expectation that usually follows them.

They recovered superbly from their round one defeat to the Chiefs at AMI Stadium to quietly go about their business in South Africa and Perth before making statements with big victories over the Jaguares, Brumbies and, most recently, the Reds, but a victory against the current champions, who put the Chiefs to the sword in Hamilton on Saturday, will push the Crusaders firmly into the spotlight.


There is no sign of the inconsistencies that have plagued them in recent seasons, most notably last year when they failed to make the playoffs. Last year they had a tendency to get up for so-called 'big' matches, but struggle to put traditionally poorer teams away. They began last year with a limp defeat to the Rebels in Christchurch, but are playing with such enthusiasm and spark this season that they must, along with the Chiefs and Highlanders, be favourites to add to their title collection.

Coaches like to measure the spirit in their teams by their defence and here the Crusaders are leading the way - their tackle success rate of 88 per cent is equal top with the Bulls.

Without Carter or McCaw every player has had to lift in terms of performance and leadership, and they are doing that. The consistency in every players' game has also strengthened their depth, to the point where they left five current or former All Blacks on the reserves bench against the Reds in Christchurch last Friday, but suffered no decline in performance.

Lock Scott Barrett, 22, prop Michael Alaalatoa, 24, and first-five Richie Mo'unga, 21, have been particularly impressive. Midfielder David Havili, a 21-year-old who had a difficult game at fullback against the Chiefs in round one has responded brilliantly to that setback and has been one of the Crusaders' best players recently. His left-handed pick-up at full pace for his try assist against the Brumbies in Canberra will live long in the memory.

A bigger test awaits in the deep south on Friday, but there is plenty to like about the way the Crusaders are going about things