Concern over southern Super Rugby teams

JUSTIN MARSHALL
Last updated 05:00 11/03/2013

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OPINION: So you're a Crusaders or Highlanders fan. Proud southern men. What's up with them then?

There's been more off-season build-up talk about the two South Island franchises than just about anybody else.

The Crusaders are still the yardstick despite not having won the title since 2008. And the Highlanders nabbed a number of big names to add to an already impressive squad.

Yet here we are and both are 0 from 2. Is this a portent of more dismal things to come?

I sense the Highlanders are in far greater trouble than the Crusaders.

The Crusaders lost on Friday night because they made a stupid mistake at a critical time and because their opposition were not only good enough to take advantage but also mentally tough enough to shut down the fightback (and that says quite a bit about the Hurricanes . . . but back to Mark Hammett's men later).

For 70 minutes, the Crusaders played like the Crusaders of old. They were tough, they were ruthless, the set piece was strong, the kick-offs outstanding . . . everything was on song.

Then in the 71st minute, they had a brain explosion. Ahead by six points and with a bonus point already in the bag, they attempted a move that defied all logic. Yes, but for the intercept, they might have scored a try, but that misses the point.

There was no need to risk their lead with such a difficult play. It was the sort of move you would have expected the Hurricanes to pull as the team chasing the win.

This was a time for caution from the Crusaders. A time to play the percentages. Instead, they went all "Hail Mary" when there was no need to.

At this level, in a tight game, one dumb decision can be the difference between winning and losing.

Todd Blackadder will not be impressed with the decision-making of his experienced players. But that aside, he'll be a lot happier than the week before when his team rolled over meekly to the Blues.

The Crusaders will come again.

But the Highlanders' problems are more deep-seated.

Jamie Joseph has been desperately unlucky to lose Tamati Ellison and Nasi Manu. The impact on the squad and game plan has been profound.

The loss of Ellison has exposed the one-dimensional play of the rest of the Highlanders midfielders. Ma'a Nonu, Phil Burleigh and Shaun Treeby are all power runners who lack Ellison's ability to create an outside break.

Midfielders like Rene Ranger and Tim Nanai-Williams are creating more for their teams because of a similar ability whereas the Highlanders are running short crash balls all the time. All that's doing is allowing the opposition defence to drift laterally and double team the outside runners.

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This is compounding the Highlanders' woes further inside where they are losing the physical forward battles they were winning last year.

Manu is key to that forward game because he is the team's best power runner. Like a few of his team-mates, Manu lacks some of the subtle skills of other New Zealand forwards such as passing before the line, or exploiting space. But it didn't matter last year because he was so good at getting over the advantage line, and other forwards like Adam Thomson had those skills.

But with Manu injured and Thomson gone, the limitations of some Highlanders forwards are being exposed.

Too many of the players are the same and there's limited scope for Joseph to change the game up in either the forwards or the backs.

Coupled with the midfield backline problem, the Highlanders are doing it tough and I'm not sure it's going to get any easier from here either.

One thing I would do is move Ben Smith to centre.

Hammett has less worries than Joseph.

I like the look of this Hurricanes outfit and the rugby they're trying to play. I'm impressed with the intent and resolve. The rookie backline (with Conrad Smith the only old head) bristles with talent and purpose.

Yes, they still have lapses that can cost them dearly.

But they showed last Friday night that they can close out a game against hardened opposition. As a result, I am confident they will be there at the business end of the season.

For me, the Chiefs still remain the standout Kiwi franchise, though.

They were desperately unlucky not to win in Cape Town in a great game of rugby. There was a diabolical miss by the referee late in the game that should have given Gareth Anscombe a very kickable winning penalty.

It was a travesty they were robbed that way. Yet I reckon when the coaching staff review the game, they will be more than happy with the effort.

Plus the Chiefs took away two bonus points from a visit to Stormers territory and that's a rare feat.

It's yet another demonstration of the depth of character in this Chiefs outfit.

MARSHALL LORE

Aaron Cruden is currently the competition's best No 10.

One blip, costly as it was against the Stormers, cannot obscure his outstanding form. He is leading the pack among the first-fives while his partner in crime, Tim Nanai-Williams, has been equally impressive in the midfield.

Ben Afeaki is a freak. He is showing why he is so highly rated. For a prop, his work rate on both attack and defence, not to mention his vision and, yes, even his passing game, is absolutely outstanding. He will be an All Black this year, mark my words.

The much talked about changes to the TMO seems to be working.

There was a great example in the Crusaders v Hurricanes match. It looked as though Matt Todd had scored but the ref thought he spied a knock on from Kieran Read.

He decided to look and was correct in his suspicions. Justice served, TMO changes vindicated.

- Stuff

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