Marshall: Great battle atop NZ conference
The resumption of Super Rugby has reinforced what a mouth-watering clash we have in store this week when the Crusaders host the Chiefs in Christchurch.
They are clearly the two best franchises in New Zealand and their performances over the weekend sets up perfectly a great clash on Friday night.
Both were pushed at certain stages but both emerged comfortable winners - reinforcing that they're both definite title contenders.
The results were what both teams needed, though for the Hurricanes and Highlanders it was probably just more of the same. They were guilty of not turning momentum and positive play into points and that's plagued them all season.
The Hurricanes had plenty of opportunities in Hamilton to score points but just didn't get them when required.
The Highlanders at stages looked likely in Dunedin but panicked and rushed things too much. Their cause wasn't aided, either, by being down to 14 men but I didn't think Ma'a Nonu's sending-off was the difference.
The Crusaders looked ominous at that stage, and you could tell structurally they were in control. They clocked up 11 minutes to four in the opposition 22, and that shows they were the smarter team.
And boy was it good to see Dan Carter in such great form. His kicking game was excellent, and he was able to relieve pressure at crucial times, get his team to the right parts of the field, and his running game and defence were incredible.
The Crusaders played intelligently, and just wore down the Highlanders who played a lot of rugby for little return.
There are signs these Crusaders are finding form at the right time, especially with Carter pulling the strings. And when you consider they had Flynn, Crockett, Read and Romano in the reserves, that's four All Blacks who can lift them even further next week.
Are they firing on all cylinders? No. But I see enough experience and international quality to make them very dangerous in the playoffs. They are real contenders just because of the calibre of players they've got.
The Crusaders are capable of going anywhere and winning this competition, if they mentally front up. They've been inconsistent mentally this year, and that's why they're where they are on the table.
It was interesting to hear Sir John Kirwan had talked to Benji Marshall's manager about the possibility of him coming to the Blues.
There's probably a lot of water to flow under that bridge yet, but I don't see a downside in Marshall coming to rugby, if that's what he wants.
Why not? It's not a loss to rugby if he's a failure, if he doesn't have the skills or intelligence and doesn't take to it like, say, Israel Folau.
But it would be a loss for rugby league.
If he was successful, and we produce another international quality five-eighth, if that's his position, why wouldn't we give him an opportunity? He's a talented league player and we've seen a lot of talented league players come through and become quality rugby internationals.
I wouldn't discourage it, but I'm sure he'll have his options. If JK has spoken to him and the word is out, I'd imagine the ARU won't be far behind.
I must say I enjoyed the Wallabies' nailbiting victory in Melbourne to square the series against the Lions - but not for the quality of the rugby.
It wasn't a great game in terms of the execution. But it was dramatic, exhilarating and had such huge stakes. That's where the entertainment value came from.
The skill level was poor, there were a lot of errors and a hell of a lot of reset scrums and penalties. The rugby didn't match the tension but it was still dramatic to watch.
The Wallabies are relying heavily on four key players at the moment.
Folau continues to impress. They're trying to get him into the game as much as possible and he was sensational again. When he gets his hands on the ball you almost feel yourself rising out of your seat.
Michael Hooper has also been outstanding at flanker, and if Will Genia wasn't playing for the Wallabies the Lions would have the series wrapped up by now. He's one of the world's best players and easily the best No 9 in the game. And Adam Ashley-Cooper is playing very well.
The Lions were guilty of not playing. I thought they went into defensive mode, and didn't grab the game by the scruff of the neck. They kicked a lot of ball away, didn't string any patterns together and their game-plan lacked imagination. They were powerful but predictable.
They'll be kicking themselves when they look back on this game. They got it really wrong on the night and have let the Wallabies back into this series.