Crusaders must put away Force to stay in hunt
The noose has been loosened.
Having escaped from death row following their 28-21 victory over the Chiefs, the Crusaders can extend their distance from the Super Rugby gallows if they can defeat Super Rugby's perennial strugglers, the Force, on Saturday night.
The Crusaders' mission statement, as they seek to confirm their place as the top-placed "wild card" team, should be basic: win.
Then they can begin preparing for another arduous march through the finals system.
Lose and the ramifications for Richie McCaw's men could be unspeakably ugly. It leaves them in danger of being run over by the four other teams – the Bulls, Sharks, Reds and Hurricanes – chasing the three "wild card" spots.
A draw should save the Crusaders' necks.
Earning two competition points would leave the door slightly ajar for the trailing pack but the Reds and Hurricanes would require bonus-point wins against the Chiefs and Waratahs and massive winning margins to swing the points differential their way.
Victory against the Force, a ragged bunch without Wallabies openside flanker David Pocock, is already considered in many corners of New Zealand to be a given.
The Western Australians have only managed three wins and since head coach Richard Graham was sacked midseason after accepting a job with the Reds, they have sucked the mud with the rest of the bottom feeders.
Still, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder remains anxious.
"This is the trap and I know we have fallen into it before. We can't expect to win. These are the mental ones. If the Crusaders go out there and think `we can do this' then I hark back to the very fresh memories of the Hurricanes and the Rebels."
Although possessing few game-breakers the Force possess a frustrating knack of dragging opponents into unspectacular scraps and making errors.
Had it not been for Chiefs midfielder Sonny Bill Williams' decision to ignore an overlap in the final seconds in Hamilton, or for television match official Bryce Lawrence to award Andy Ellis his controversial try, the Crusaders' fate would be far more tenuous.
Blackadder believes Lawrence made the correct call in awarding Ellis' try but acknowledged his side's display was flawed.
Errors could have been costly. Despite their dominant scrum – and the Crusaders' forwards believed referee Steve Walsh should have penalised the Chiefs pack more often – their clearance was poor when under heat from halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Blackadder must have almost lurched off his pew when Zac Guildford's wild pass from a ruck near his own line in the second half almost ended in disaster.
A win over the Force will probably result in the Crusaders meeting either the Bulls or the Sharks in their "qualifying final" at AMI Stadium.
If they advance to the semi they will probably face the Chiefs in Hamilton or the Stormers in Cape Town.
There's only one thing New Zealand teams hate more than spending 18 hours on flights while travelling to South Africa for play-off matches. Not being in the finals at all.
Possible placings after this weekend: Chiefs (NZ conference winner) 1, Stormers (SA) 2, Brumbies (Aust) 3: Wildcards: Crusaders 4, Bulls 5, Sharks 6. Potential finalists in series qualifying matches on July 20-21: Brumbies v Sharks (Canberra), Crusaders v Bulls (Chch). Bye: Chiefs, Stormers.