Marshall: Weather factor sorts out the leaders

SOGGY NIGHT: Robbie Fruean of the Crusaders is tackled by Chris Noakes with Keven Mealamu of the Blues.
SOGGY NIGHT: Robbie Fruean of the Crusaders is tackled by Chris Noakes with Keven Mealamu of the Blues.

The Chiefs and the Crusaders have taken control of the New Zealand conference and I believe it's had as much to do with the weather as other factors.

Before you blame the long summer for causing me to go barmy, let me explain.

When I played in Britain, I noticed the competition would subtly change around the December-January period when we were coming into the heart of the northern winter. Suddenly teams like Leicester, who tended to struggle early season, would come into their own. With big forward packs and experienced halves, they would adjust to the colder and wetter conditions more effectively, often grinding the opposition down.

My point is that the weather can play a big part in changing the dynamics of a competition - and we saw that at the weekend.

I reckon that both Kiwi derby games would have been completely different had they been played in 25 degrees Celsius heat in February.

But last weekend - in cold winter conditions with a biting southerly blowing - it was the Crusaders and Chiefs forward packs that dominated. Both teams won the defensive battle, didn't concede a try and displayed greater patience and superior discipline.

The Crusaders-Blues match was not the showpiece game we had hoped for. But that was mainly because the Crusaders were so ruthless. Brutal even.

They destroyed the Blues scrum, embarrassing it at certain times. Their lineout was efficient most of the game and they kicked with nous to the right areas of the field.

The Chiefs weren't as impressive in dispatching the Hurricanes but their mental toughness and abilty to adapt also shone through.

They kicked astutely and completely negated the Canes' offence. And even though the Canes dominated territory and possession, whenever the Chiefs got down the other end, they took every one of their limited opportunities.

The weather issue can't be underplayed as an ongoing factor in Super Rugby either.

For obvious reasons (mainly because we play in adverse conditions so often), New Zealand teams tend to have an advantage over Australian and South African opposition when games are played in poor conditions. That's why home semis and finals could be vital if our teams have Australian or African teams faced with conditions they are not used to.

The wins at the weekend have set us up nicely for Friday night's New Zealand conference top-of-the-table clash in Hamilton.

On current form, I favour the Crusaders, but only because they have been the most impressive of the two sides over the past month following comprehensive wins over two of the competition's heavyweights. They beat the Brumbies in Canberra and then the Blues.

The Chiefs are still winning but they're doing it tough and having to work really, really hard to get their points. They look the more vulnerable.

That's got a lot to do with losing so many players through injury in recent weeks, whereas the Crusaders have been boosted by the return of world class players such as Dan Carter and Kieran Read.

If the Crusaders can win in Hamilton, they'll rightly assume favouritism to take out the Kiwi conference and be our strongest overall title contender.

What of the Blues and Canes after the weekend?

Well, the Blues shouldn't be overly despondent. They showed glimpses of being able to foot it with the best teams. Their defence was good and at times with the ball in hand, they were dynamic.

But they are being constantly undermined by poor decision-making and increasingly bad discipline. The latter is a real problem that needs addressing now or it's going to cost them even more dearly over the rest of the season.

The Blues need to harden up in certain discipline areas or they are going to be left behind in this competition.

The Canes were the biggest losers of the weekend. That was a must-win game and now their destiny is out of their own hands. Relying on results among other teams to keep your playoff hopes alive is a desperate dance no team wants to be in.

Mark Hammett's men simply aren't converting their opportunities into points. They lack patience and confidence.

That was manifest in their decision to kick for goal when the Chiefs were down to 14 men. They could have opted for a scrum and made a statement of intent right then to grab the game by the scruff of the neck, as the Crusaders did against the Blues when they opted to turn down three and take a lineout.

Instead they took the three points in the forlorn hope it would get them back into the game. All they did was make error after error, which compounded that mistake.

Sometimes you've just got to stand up tall and proud and say: "We're going to have a go at these guys. Let's put down a scrum."

By kicking for goal, the Canes let the Chiefs off the hook. More importantly, they gave them a chance to chat, settle and regroup, knowing the Canes still needed to score a try, something which after 70 minutes of rugby they had failed achieve.



Looking at the Aussie situation there was a real chance for the Reds to gain a major blow by surpassing the Brumbies on the Aussie conference table after the latter were beaten by the Waratahs. However the impressive Cheetahs put that and the Reds to the sword, so the Brumbies remain top.

Israel Falou still looks to me to be the test fullback for the Lions series and Berrick Barnes was outstanding in his 40 minutes for the Tahs, which will please Robbie Deans, no doubt.

Local derbies are proving to be a good gauge of talent and response to pressure for Steve Hansen. He would have seen plenty with lots of matchups over the weekend and another big one coming up in Hamilton. In saying that I can't see any significant changes in his first test team against France. I expect it to be almost exactly the same team as the one which ran out against England at Twickenham last December but with a new captain and No 7. 

Fairfax Media