Winning the mind games could be crucial for Crusaders' Super Rugby title hopes

Kieran Read will lead from the front when the Crusaders play their first Super Rugby playoffs match against the ...
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Kieran Read will lead from the front when the Crusaders play their first Super Rugby playoffs match against the Highlanders in 15 years.

OPINION: Finals footy isn't the most ideal time to freeze with anxiety, or fear.

While the 31-22 defeat to the Hurricanes last weekend will have angered the Crusaders, destroying hopes of emulating the 2002 team's deed of running through a Super Rugby season unbeaten, they have enough old heads in their midst to prevent themselves succumbing during the crucial moments of the sudden-death matches.

Pressure does strange things to people. Some thrive, others get nervy, make elementary errors and lose focus.

The Crusaders scrum will be a key weapon in Saturday's game against the Highlanders.
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The Crusaders scrum will be a key weapon in Saturday's game against the Highlanders.

We saw how it affected frustrated tennis player Marin Cilic during his final against Roger Federer at Wimbledon, the Croat breaking down in tears after he lost the first set and trailed 3-0 in the second. Federer cruised to victory.

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The Crusaders haven't had it so great over the last month.

As well as stumbling to the Canes in their final regular season match in Wellington, which resulted in them being overtaken by the Lions and conceding the minor premiership, they dropped a "friendly" match against the Highlanders in Timaru when the competition went into hiatus during the test window, albeit with both sides missing their All Blacks. Then there was that 12-3 defeat to the British and Irish Lions last month.

Now the Crusaders face the Highlanders for the fifth time this season, when they collide in the quarterfinal at AMI Stadium on Saturday night. It seems an eternity since the two sides met in a pre-season match in Darfield, followed by the competition games won by the Crusaders in Dunedin and Christchurch.

The most recent victory, a 25-22 nail-nibbler over the southerners at AMI Stadium on June 3, will linger in the memories of those who watched Mitch Hunt nail a 43m drop goal attempt in the 83rd minute. So will the 30-27 triumph in Dunedin three months earlier, when Seta Tamanivalu scored the match-winner in the right-hand corner.

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Fifteen years have passed since the two South Island teams have met in a play-off, when the Crusaders beat the Highlanders 34-23 in the semi in Christchurch. Led by Reuben Thorne, they then took down the Brumbies 31-13 in the final a week later.

This Crusaders team possesses the temperament to remain steady when all seems lost, otherwise they wouldn't have accounted for the Highlanders in those two competition games.

Or have clawed their way back to run down the Reds in Brisbane, when Hunt again proved the saviour by kicking the vital penalty when time was up.

Coach Scott Robertson is in the privileged position of being able to call upon men who know how to win, but finding the magic formula to ensure everything clicks is not easy. Ask former coach Todd Blackadder. He went desperately close to guiding the team to titles in 2011 and 2014, but the team was beaten in both finals. 

Robertson can name a forward pack stacked with five World Cup winners, including test captain Kieran Read, with another two in Luke Romano and Wyatt Crockett on the bench.

The task for Robertson and his assistants is to manage some tired bodies and minds, to enable them do all they can to work overtime and bring the title back to Christchurch for the first time since 2008.

Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Whitelock and Read, along with outside back Israel Dagg, started all three tests against the British and Irish Lions - as well as the Crusaders' game against the tourists. Scott Barrett and Crockett also made appearances.

They will have to survive three more games of test-match intensity to claim the silverware. And Robertson has to prepare a gameplan that can unwind their opponents. It all starts with the Highlanders on Saturday night.

 - Stuff

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