Hurricanes clash is massive, says Andy Ellis
Halfback Andy Ellis says Saturday's showdown with the Hurricanes is a "massive game" for the Crusaders' championship hopes and predicts the team that settles best after the test rugby interlude will win the Super 15 crown.
The Crusaders traversed the test transition issue at a team meeting on Monday where captain Richie McCaw held sway just two days after leading the All Blacks to a series clean sweep over Ireland.
Any doubt the All Blacks would find it difficult to readjust to bread and butter duties was quickly dispelled by the skipper's message and mood.
"Richie, being Richie, said how excited he is about being back here and involved and I think all the other boys are feeling pretty much the same," Ellis said. "It's nice to play the tests but the challenge we've got ahead of us is pretty exciting and it's not hard to get everyone motivated."
Ellis said the Crusaders – seeking their first Super rugby title since 2008 – face "massive" games against the Hurricanes followed by the Chiefs, who top the New Zealand conference.
"We've got to hit the ground running, there's no building into it. Three games to the playoffs and we've got to win all of them to put us in a good position to win this thing."
The Sanzar competition – now in its 17th season – has never had a mid-season pause before. The All Blacks, the Wallabies and the Springboks have all had three tests against northern hemisphere opposition so most franchises have the task of reorienting their international players.
Ellis – controversially overlooked for the Irish series for an out-of-form Piri Weepu – said the Crusaders faced a challenge to reintegrate the All Blacks and "how the team picks up and kicks off again".
"That will be the difference between the team that wins it to the teams that fall away, how well [test players] are integrated back in and how excited they are about playing."Crusaders hooker Corey Flynn, who was rehabilitating from a rib injury during the test series window, thinks the Crusaders could have an advantage with their returning All Blacks "very match fit".
"I think we'll be better off than most, we've had about 10 guys involved in the All Blacks so they've been at a huge intensity and we've tried to carry that on here too with the intensity side of it so we wouldn't be too far behind the guys who are coming back."
Head coach Todd Blackadder believes the Crusaders will hit the ground running.
"If we get our hunger back this week, then I don't expect us to take a step back."
The $64,000 question is whether the Crusaders can rapidly replicate the form which saw them put 50-plus points on the Blues and the Highlanders in their last two games before the enforced break.
Blackadder said the challenge was to "do our basics really well" rather than race in and "try and start as we finished off four weeks ago".
"If we do that, we'll put ourselves under pressure.
"The next three weeks will determine the outcome of where teams sit ... I back our side. I just think we've got a lot of experience, we've got too much to play for and we're at home."