Path to Super Rugby glory starts for Crusaders against Hurricanes in Wellington
OPINION: Last year Lions coach Johan Ackermann looked at the Super Rugby draw, picked-up a custard pie and rammed it into his own face.
The result? The Lions failed to win the title. Ackermann, it turned out, had attempted to be too clever for his own good.
It all started when his team were placed at the top of the competition log with one round remaining and, the way Ackermann figured it, could beat the lowly Jaguares even if they stacked it with second-string players.
So rather than expose his best men to injury and jet-lag ahead of a guaranteed home quarterfinal in Johannesburg he sent a contingent of B-graders to Buenos Aires, where they were embarrassed 34-22.
That shock loss melted the Lions hopes of hosting a home final. Game over.
The Hurricanes, having netted a 35-10 bonus-point victory over the Crusaders earlier in the weekend, got out the party streamers. Their victory in Christchurch, and the Lions' flop in Argentina, handed them the minor premiership on a gold platter.
More importantly they were guaranteed a home berth as long as they remained alive in the finals. In Super Rugby, where teams can be forced to endure mind-numbing waits in airports and many hours in the air, earning the right to sleep in your own cot is almost priceless.
The Hurricanes marched over the Brumbies and Chiefs in their first two sudden-death fixtures before dealing to the sleepy Lions, who were forced to travel about 12,000km and negotiate several time zones, 20-3 in the grand final in Wellington.
All this emphasises how important it is for the Crusaders to tug the rug from under the Hurricanes' feet in the Cake Tin on Saturday night. Victory ensures the Crusaders can remain in Christchurch for as long as their finals hopes have a heartbeat.
Having won all 14 of their matches this season (discounting the 12-3 loss to the touring British and Irish Lions), they cannot finish below second place.
They don't want that, though. If they beat the Hurricanes, there is no chance of the Lions, who sit two points below them on 61 points, of overtaking them with a win over the Sharks in Durban on Sunday morning.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson has been unrepentant about his decision to rest All Blacks front rowers Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks. He says his hand wasn't forced by the All Blacks management, that it was about player welfare and getting the best out of the trio come the play-offs.
All Blacks Kieran Read, Wyatt Crockett, Scott Barrett and Israel Dagg have been asked to start in the capital. Sam Whitelock is in the reserves.
Never has it been so important for the non-test players to perform for the Crusaders.
The ill-conceived Super Rugby programme, where the test window once again threatens to derail a team's momentum, does teams few favours.
But it's a reality. If the Crusaders lose, and the Lions win, the Christchurch-based side could be forced to travel to Jo'burg for the grand final. If the Crusaders lose without claiming a bonus point, and the Lions, who have won 13 games to date, draw without claiming a try-scoring bonus point with the Sharks, the two front runners will be locked on 63 points.
Sanzaar's tie-breaking rules favour the Crusaders. The team with the most wins from all matches takes top spot.
It is a lifeline, but not one the Crusaders would want to cling to. Winning in Wellington is the way to go.