Crusaders join Chiefs in leading NZ's charge

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 09:52 24/03/2013

Crusaders vs Kings

Crusaders
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SURGING BACK: After a slow start, the Crusaders now look the goods to reach the Super Rugby playoffs.

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OPINION: One team won ugly. One in style. But there was nothing that happened in Hamilton or Christchurch to suggest the Chiefs and the Crusaders won't be the New Zealand teams challenging for the Super title in August.

The poor Southern Kings, battered by the vicious politics of South Africa rugby at home, were almost instantly slapped into a state of slack jawed horror by a Crusaders side playing like the Crusaders, not the fumbling imposters of the early rounds. When George Whitelock plunged over for the first try, it was after 25 passes, all delivered at high speed, some under pressure, without a hint of anyone knocking the ball on, or misreading a move.

At its best, and there were some gold standard moments last night, the Crusaders' style, like much that's great in sport, is fiendishly difficult, but looks simple.

They run straight, they bounce up after a tackle, back up ferociously, and the ball isn't dropped.

That's easy to say, but since 1998 hardly any other side has consistently managed it.

The Stormers and the Sharks in South Africa over the next fortnight won't be the roadkill the Kings were but even without Dan Carter Cape Town and Durban will see a visiting side that's found form. Add in the nice human touch of Zac Guildford returning sharp and industrious from his alcohol rehabilitation, and the game could have been scripted to help Christchurch fans sleep easy at night.

Likewise they shouldn't be twitchy in Hamilton. Very good teams can be bruised, travel-stained, and jet-lagged, yet still find a way to win. The year's Chiefs, just like last year's Chiefs, have learned how to do that.

One of the reasons to love rugby is that the game is never as straight forward as it seems.

Look at the Highlanders before the season started. A squad that had stunned some big-name teams last year was boosted by the steely addition of Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Ma'a Nonu, and looked sure to take the full step into the big league. It all seemed so simple.

First stick in the spokes. Adam Thomson, who never found an automatic loose forward starting spot in the All Blacks, but is such a good player he was always on the verge of doing so, decides his future is in Japan, not Dunedin.

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Second stick. Nasi Manu, a steam engine guys like Thomson work off, is injured. Third, and maybe the biggest stick of all, what was a massive strength in 2012, the bullet passing and dynamism at halfback of Aaron Smith, has dissipated to the point halfback is now almost a weak point for the Highlanders.

Last year Smith was so good he eclipsed the lionhearted Jimmy Cowan, and catapulted himself into the All Blacks. In one brilliant season he all but erased memories of a generation of meerkat halfbacks, who checked the terrain endlessly, and called for Steve 20 times, before deciding to clear the ball from a breakdown.

In Hamilton on Friday night there were scary signs the anxious posture of the Kalahari mongoose has wormed its way into Smith's play. In one embarrassing moment the ball had actually popped completely clear at his feet, but, his head up looking to see what was happening elsewhere, it took a verbal prompt from referee Jonathon White (actually to advancing Chiefs players) to make him look down at the ball.

Just maybe, now that he's a frontliner and not the promising kid any more, he's over-thinking his game. His natural style is a thing of rare beauty. If he can regain it there could be massive benefits for the Highlanders.

Footnote: As loath as I am to risk Susan Devoy slapping me across the head for straying into tricky race grounds, is there really ANY other rugby nation that was beaten 30-3 - that's 30-3 - in a test match, with the gall to suggest they may have been dudded by the referee?

- Sunday Star Times

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