Wilson: Crusaders' experience shows through

JEFF WILSON
Last updated 05:00 07/07/2013
Crusaders, Kieran Read
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
ON A CRUSADE: Kieran Read leading out his side on Friday night.

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OPINION: Jeff you explain the result in Christchurch on Friday night? Last year's champions, a 10-point gap on the table, and a Crusaders team that haven't been themselves for much of 2013 did not point to that sort of a thumping.

My explanation is this: the June test series against France has proved just the tonic for the Crusaders to find their form.

This was one generation playing against the next - an experienced and success-driven side against a talented but inexperienced Chiefs outfit.

When we left the French series, the All Blacks forward pack had found their heart and soul. The emergence of Wyatt Crockett, the strength of Owen Franks, the impact of Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano and the growing leadership of Kieran Read were all vital.

The Crusaders have benefited from these players coming out of that series with enhanced reputations and great confidence.

We all know games are generally won and lost up front, and the Crusaders pack showed all their experience in dominating their Chiefs opposites to the extent that they may well be the new title favourites.

In comparison, the Chiefs pack must have some doubts. Hika Elliot and Tanerau Latimer are unwanted All Blacks, Ben Afeaki had limited opportunities against France, Craig Clarke is not required at the next level, and Liam Messam ceded his spot to Victor Vito for the final outing.

Steve Hansen has showed great faith in his All Blacks and talked about players taking their time to find peak form in Super Rugby.

It appears the Crusaders have got the formula right this year, and just might be back to their best.

We shouldn't be surprised by that. They have seven All Black regulars and 13 of their starting XV are internationals.

We talk about the Chiefs unearthing the next tier of talent, but it seems the Crusaders aren't quite ready to pass over that mantle just yet. All season the Chiefs have demonstrated championship qualities but on Friday night we saw the Crusaders back in ominous form.

The Chiefs are not out of the competition. The loss of Messam pre-game hurt. But they have to regroup quickly, and as much as it's about getting one point in Auckland on Saturday to secure home advantage, it may also be about erasing the memories of Christchurch.

If the Crusaders have got the current generation committed to next year, and the Chiefs the potential next generation on its books, where does that leave the other three New Zealand teams over the next few months?

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The movement of players and race to fill next season's roster has taken centre stage at this time of the season like never before. Beauden Barrett and Julian Savea have yet to commit to the Hurricanes, likewise Colin Slade at the Highlanders. And what about Ma'a Nonu?

But this is professional sport. It's about success, about regenerating, reinventing, and finding a way to stay at the top for as long as possible.

And it's a self-prophesising process. You win, fans come to watch, sponsors want to come on board and you have the ability to invest for the future.

There's no room in the professional game now for a conscience. Franchises have limited responsibilities to provincial unions and there is no longer a need to strengthen the region as part of this process.

The professional distance between Super Rugby and ITM Cup gets greater and greater, and the teams that aren't bound by this connection have clearer direction.

The decision by Jamie Macintosh to head to the Chiefs is professional rugby at its purest. His conscience as a southern man is with the Southland Stags and his future as a professional player is with the Chiefs.

With boundaries now removed for franchises in terms of contracting, we no longer support the individuals but the team. Do you really care about where a player comes from as long as your team is winning?

The ITM Cup and national under-20 programme are now our best development tools.

Franchises will simply go get what they need. They will chase any player, even if he's across in another code, if they think he will be the difference between winning and losing.

So as the fight for signatures continues to grab headlines, can we honestly say we can deliver five teams in this competition capable of competing for a title? The reality is, it may be a number of years before we see someone other than the Chiefs and Crusaders in that championship picture.

- Sunday Star Times

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