Crunch time for Crusaders with playoffs on line
When Andy Ellis gets a whiff of the Super Rugby finals he knows it's time to hunker down.
Forget the fancy plays, veteran halfback Ellis, who has never been idle during the playoffs since joining the Crusaders in 2006, says his side's tacticians must have clear heads if they are to beat the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday night.
The basic framework of the Crusaders' game plan will be built around an efficient lineout and scrum, whether they can give the Highlanders a beating at the breakdown and kicking long.
"It goes without saying that the set-piece is huge. That's a no-brainer - as is getting out of your own half and clearing your own 22m," Ellis said.
"If you can nail that everytime you can give yourself the best chance of scoring points down the other end."
The Crusaders, placed sixth on 42 points, have just three games left to cement a place in the playoffs.
Conditions may be perfect at the enclosed Forsyth Barr Stadium but winning, not chasing bonus-point tries, will take priority.
After playing the Highlanders they face the Chiefs and Hurricanes in Christchurch. Ellis has good reason to fear the Highlanders.
Their 2-11 win-loss record meant their playoff chances disappeared well before the winter solstice but the southerners finally flexed their little-used muscles by ambushing the Blues 38-28 in Dunedin before the June test window.
"It's a huge game for us. The next three games are 'must wins'," Ellis conceded.
"The way the Highlanders played the Blues before the three-week bye ... just as we knew they can, they really stood-up and played some stunning rugby."
The Crusaders' 38-17 defeat to the Hurricanes in their "friendly" game at Levin, the result of some inaccurate lineouts and poor defence, was a shock and what disappointed Ellis most was the slack attitude.
He refused to blame the unsettled build-up, because the stormy weather threatened to derail their travel plans and hampered training, for the loss.
"It was pretty disappointing in general. There were a lot of missed tackles and there probably wasn't a great attitude.
"I'm not making excuses, the boys probably weren't just there.
"We say every time you get to wear a Crusaders jersey it is a great honour and everyone really believes that. But we just didn't front-up and play like Crusaders men."
The return of eight players from All Blacks' duty will add some class to their starting line-up, although coach Todd Blackadder will be cautious about overloading them following the series against France.
There is an expectation the core of non-All Blacks will ensure the test players don't return and think they have to carry the load.
Ex-All Blacks Corey Flynn and Ellis are both Crusaders centurions and George Whitelock and Ryan Crotty are in the side's leadership group.
"We are quite fortunate we have a few guys here who have quite a bit of experience anyway and who quite enjoy that," Ellis maintains.
"Even when our All Blacks come back we all help run things - Flynnie, George and Crots. It's good to give the team some direction so the All Blacks boys can just come back and play some footy."