Mehrtens: Crusaders get a shot at redemption

COMING BACK: Crusader Richie McCaw could be on the blindside agains the Sharks.
COMING BACK: Crusader Richie McCaw could be on the blindside agains the Sharks.

I've got a good feeling about the Crusaders this week, being a firm believer my old mob is at their best when they're challenged.

This Super Rugby semifinal on Saturday night very much has that feel about it. The fact that the outnumbered Sharks rolled the Crusaders in Christchurch during the round-robin adds a real edge to the contest, which should bring something special out of the Red and Blacks.

Frankly, they were embarrassed that night in Christchurch, and this will be a shot at redemption they'll relish.

Think about it. The Crusaders' best performance of the season was when they belted the Brumbies after the bye when everyone was talking up the men from Canberra. They also lifted themselves for the rematches against the Blues and Highlanders, and delivered big time.

They thrive on that challenge -- excitement generated by a game with that edge to it.

The playoffs always brought the best out of Crusaders teams I played in. It was a time of the year we loved, and usually found another level to go to.

I'm sure the memory of that gut-wrenching home defeat to the Sharks will help Todd Blackadder motivate his men this week.

We saw that last week in Durban when the Sharks were able to reverse their only home loss of the season, to the Highlanders. I loved how Jamie Joseph's men played - they gave it everything and if not for a pounding in the set pieces, might well have repeated the dose.

But the Sharks brought enough physicality and intent to scramble the win.

I wouldn't expect them to get that same set-piece dominance against the Crusaders who will be breathing fire to meet that physical challenge.

When they've just flown into the game and been physical they've been at their best. I'm not convinced trying to think their way round the field is a forte of this Crusaders team. They get too side to side, and often lack any flow.

To beat the Sharks you've got to meet that physical challenge, and then you can play against them. But you've got to do that work up front first.

It's no coincidence the four teams left have probably got the best packs. The Waratahs forwards are the biggest in the competition, the Crusaders have real quality in the tight and loose, ball-playing ability and precision is a forte of the Brumbies and the Sharks are big, mean and love the physical challenge.

But the Sharks, as the Highlanders showed, are there to be attacked. You've just got to get bodies in motion and support guys, rather than pre-plan too much. I'd like to see the Crusaders be a bit more spontaneous.

For the Red and Blacks to get a shot at an eighth title the recipe is simple: do the job up front, then have some fun with the ball.

For a lot of the season the Crusaders seem to have been playing with a bit in reserve; but now's the time to let everything go.

The other semifinal could be closer than some are picking. The Brumbies split their round-robin games against the Waratahs, and have a good, quick defensive line which will look to deny the Waratahs backs much time. But I wonder if the size factor will count against them.

For the Waratahs to win it's all about possession. They need to hold on to ball, build phases and let their talent come through. The games they've fallen over have been when they haven't looked after the ball so well.

I also hear my old coach Wayne Smith is a man in demand, with suggestions Steve Hansen wants him back with the All Blacks for next year's World Cup.

That would be a great move. He's got so much to offer and he's well liked and respected by all players. His way of getting the message across is second to none.

I'm sure Hansen would love another experienced coach to use as a sounding board, and it doesn't do any harm that he's not on a career path looking for his job.