Mehrtens: Spontaneity the vital ingredient

ANDREW MEHRTENS
Last updated 05:00 11/03/2014
Beauden Barrett
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
STAR TURN: Hurricanes first five-eighth Beauden Barrett was allowed to shine against the Cheetahs.

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OPINION: Watching the Crusaders struggle through this early part of Super Rugby reminds me of 1998 when you wouldn't have given tuppence for our title chances after the first five weeks of the season.

That year we lost three of our first four games and, with a bye thrown in, were last five weeks into the competition. But we won our last nine matches in a row and went on to claim our first championship when we rolled the Blues in the final on Eden Park.

We turned round a horrible start by being honest about ourselves and coming together as a team, and I'm sure these Crusaders are capable of achieving something similar.

That win against the Stormers took some of the pressure off but they will know they were lucky and that performance levels still need to come up. There's still a lot of work to do.

I can remember having a similar feeling in 1998 after that awful start.

The turning point came at a training out at QEII Park where we ended up just sitting down with bread rolls and a drink, and getting all our stuff out in the open. "What's going on? Why aren't we performing? And what did we need to do?" It all came from the players as much as possible.

My takeaway from that year was that it's all about coming together and playing as a team. Sometimes your moves can be pre-ordained and you can have too much structure. You need spontaneity - it gets you excited, it gets guys wanting to impose themselves and you're able to react to opportunities at any given moment.

In '98 we did it piece by piece, and were helped by the draw. Our games got tougher and tougher, but by the time we started playing the really good teams we'd found our groove.

That turnaround came about because we put our cards on the table and pledged to play some rugby, have some fun and work hard. It wasn't pretty at the start but we had a go and went from there.

I know the perception of the Crusaders then was that we were very structured. That was true of our defensive system, but we played a lot off the cuff on attack.

If you look at what we did off turnover ball, and the team tries that went through a lot of hands, our attack was spontaneous.

We didn't have any stars in '98, certainly not guys of the world stature of Kieran Read, Richie McCaw or Dan Carter, and I wonder if their presence might be intimidating for these young guys now.

It's important to get those connections in a team. The Crusaders have a few new guys, and it takes time to assimilate them. Communication is vital, especially if you're trying to play a little bit of heads-up rugby.

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Todd Blackadder will be frustrated. But I liked some of the signs from the Stormers game. In the first half they brought a lot of energy and looked eager. My misgiving would be they went through a lot of phases without hurting the Africans.

Mark Hammett will be going through similar frustrations at the Hurricanes, though he's still waiting for the solace of a victory.

They're searching for something, and I wonder if they need to go back to their roots. The Hurricanes' ethos was always similar to Otago teams of the '90s - they had a crack from everywhere.

It's hard to do that now because defences are so tight, but there's got to be room for individual expression, and the Hurricanes have always been at their best when they've been like that.

This week presents a great chance for the Hurricanes to get something going. The Cheetahs will feel like they've got nothing to lose, and will look to play some rugby.

As soon as the Canes strike a game a bit broken up, they're going to feel a lot more at ease.

They need to back themselves, and they need to get Beauden Barrett more involved. The more he gets ball with guys running off him, the better it will be for them.

This will be a big week for the Blues, too. The Lions will play the game they'll have targeted from this trip. They've acclimatised, got the hardest one out of the way and now can attack with gusto.

I'd look to play Benji Marshall, maybe off the bench for 25 to 30 minutes. He brought so much energy in Dunedin, I'd love to see him get a decent crack, either at 12 or 15, at a time when he could wreak havoc on fatiguing legs and screaming lungs late in a high-intensity game at altitude.

Why have refs as TMOs?
After sitting through the Sharks-Lions game last weekend, I couldn't help wondering why on earth we need referees in the role of TMO.

With about 10 minutes to go, a player from each team contested a high ball, and collided in mid-air. The referee went to the TMO and he ruled a penalty against the Lions guy, even though he'd had his eyes only on the ball and had contested, I believe, fairly. It was a flat-out bad decision.

What I want to know is what happens to this guy who got it patently wrong in a big call at the business end of a game? "Nothing" is the answer.

There needs to be better accountability when these guys make mistakes, and I'd even go as far as to question why the TMO needs to be a referee when they're not dealing in questions of law as such, but what actually just happened.

I'd much rather see a former player or coach in the role because to my mind they've got a better feel for the game.

- Fairfax Media

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