Crusaders crank it up on home run in title chase

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 14/07/2014

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OPINION: Home advantage is crucial, but if timing counts then the Crusaders wouldn't be a bad bet to end their Super Rugby title drought.

The Waratahs are the natural favourites at the TAB after topping the regular season ladder to earn a week off and home advantage for the semifinals in a fortnight and, should they make it, the final.

History heavily favours the home team when it comes to the Super Rugby playoffs with 12 of the 18 winners since the competition began having won the regular season.

And after a 34-3 thumping of old rivals the Reds in Brisbane, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the Waratahs have the squad to finally take the crown.

Casting the largest shadow across Sydney's optimism is undoubtedly the Crusaders.

The team that took the Highlanders apart in Christchurch on Saturday bore little resemblance to the one which had stuttered through the opening month of the season.

With Dan Carter in the backline, Kieran Read fit and firing at No 8 and a refreshed All Blacks captain Richie McCaw set to return for the semifinals, it appears everything has gone to plan.

In truth, the season has been a roller coaster for coach Todd Blackadder who was a man under the pump after his side lost three of their opening five matches.

It was not the results, so much as they nature of them, which had red and black fans in a lather over a team that simply lacked any punch in attack.

Read's concussion problems, a misfiring midfield and a chasing pack were ongoing concerns, but the Crusaders machine has slowly but surely cranked into top gear.

The arrvial of Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo in week four was a game changer and Carter, the world's premier first five-eighth, has somewhat ironically filled the problem position of second five-eighth.

Carter's defence has been staunch and his vision is opening holes for the likes of Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg, Kieran Fonotia, and Nadolo outside him.

The Crusaders, thanks to the bonus point gained by veteran hooker Corey Flynn's fourth try against the Highlanders, and Waratahs will now sit back and watch the carnage of the qualifying playoffs introduced to Super Rugby in 2011.

Since then, the Reds followed by the Chiefs twice, have rode home advantage to the title.

Tellingly, the Crusaders have played in the qualifying finals on each occasion only to miss out on the grand prize. They will play the highest ranked winner from the two qualifying finals with the Brumbies to play the Chiefs in Canberra on Saturday night followed the following morning by the Sharks and Highlanders in Durban.

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The two-time defending champion Chiefs are the team that refuses to give up and showed those qualities again in beating the Blues 11-8 in driving rain at Eden Park to sneak into the top six.

But they will not be favourites against a Brumbies side that has won six of seven games this season at Canberra Stadium, including a 41-23 demolition of the Chiefs.

With Matt Toomua scoring a hat-trick, the Brumbies looked slick in scoring seven tries to tip the Force out of the competition. They are a side well-equipped for knock out rugby via the steady tactical boots of halfback Nic White and Toomua and the goalkicking prowess of Christian Leali'ifano.

Likewise, the Sharks will be heavily favoured to beat the Highlanders in the other qualifier.

The Highlanders have flagged dramatically in the past two weeks in conceding 77 points against the Waratahs and Crusaders combined.

Coach Jamie Joseph will take some confidence from a 34-18 win over the Sharks in Durban earlier in the season, but faces a monumental task.

The Jake White coached Sharks roared back to form with a convincing 34-10 win over the Stormers in Cape Town and will be tough to beat on their home track.

Of the teams that missed out, the Force might feel most aggrieved after winning one more match (nine) than the Chiefs and Highlanders, but still finishing in ninth place due to a lack of bonus points.

The seventh-placed Hurricanes were the unlucky side in the final weekend, tipped out when the Chiefs edged the Blues at Eden Park, while the Rebels took home the wooden spoon on the back of a 40-7 loss to the Bulls.

- The Press

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