Crusaders hope to make Rebels yelp

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 14/03/2014
Todd Blackadder
JOSPEH JOHNSON/ Fairfax NZ
CRUSADERS COACH: Todd Blackadder.

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Watching the Crusaders is now an uncomfortable pastime.

Immense relief, not elation, was the over-riding emotion after last weekend's unconvincing 14-13 win over the Stormers and fans have every right to be anxious ahead of tonight's match against the Rebels in Melbourne.

The Crusaders were right to celebrate their first win of the Super Rugby season when Tom Taylor's late penalty got them home but none were so bold, or daft enough, to state they had turned the corner.

Who knows what they will serve up against the Rebels?

No doubt there are optimists out there who believe the Crusaders will stick it to the Rebels, who finished 12th last year and have since lost enfant terrible James O'Connor (overseas) and Kurtley Beale (Waratahs). But if you search elsewhere the lugubrious looks on supporters' faces tell the real story. They are worried.

Andy Ellis, who has been reinstated to halfback following the calf injury to Willi Heinz, has bitter memories of when the Crusaders last played in Melbourne in 2012 and suffered a shock 28-19 defeat.

''My recollection is of Stirling Mortlock steaming through the middle of the field to set up a try to take the game away from us,'' Ellis said.

''We have talked about in the past coming up against teams like the Rebels and not being 100 per cent switched on. It's probably why we have been so on-edge again this week.''

Let's be frank. It's high time the Crusaders sorted their act and manufactured a performance worthy of a franchise that hasn't missed the playoffs since 2001.

Often in rugby the players refer to ''work-ons,'' well, there are no shortage of those.

Simple skills, like handling and passing under pressure, running directly at the defence and - most importantly - protecting the ball in contact and not being robbed at the breakdowns are in the high-priority category.

The lineout was also unsettled against the combative Stormers leapers and contributed to their inability to build pressure.

The latest changes to the backline have been welcomed. Israel Dagg, back in his specialist fullback spot, now has to show more vigour and operate at a higher efficiency rate, the midfield pairing of Taylor and Ryan Crotty must straighten the attack.

Given that assistant coach Aaron Mauger acknowledged this week the backline was only operating at about 50 per cent, playmaker Colin Slade has been shouldered with a big responsibility.

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With the bye looming, the Crusaders face a gruesome week stewing in their own misery if they cop a defeat tonight.

That would undoubtedly increase the pressure right across the organisation as they contemplate a home game against the Hurricanes and the two-match South African tour after the bye.

Ellis has been around long enough to know how to avoid the public fallout after the opening losses to the Chiefs and Blues.

''You know stuff is going on but you still try and stay away from the media after a couple of losses. But that Stormers week was a huge one for us. So much went into it - it was also like a final week because we knew we had to win that to get things moving,'' Ellis said.

''This week's a bit the same. We have got to win going into the bye. The boys have been on edge again.''

- The Timaru Herald

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