The Western Force travel to Christchurch in what traditionally is the hardest place to get a win in super rugby. But is the province of Canterbury the fortress it once was?
The Crusaders had a moderate start to the season, losing a handful of games, with Coach Todd Blackadder shuffling his selections, as if perplexed as to what his starting fifteen should be. As a result, the Crusaders looked a little disjointed and one-dimensional, relying on overly simplistic plays and brute force to overcome the opposition. Ominously though, as the Crusaders are notorious for, they are experiencing a mid to late season surge.
The turning point for me was their trip to the Waikato, where they managed to overcome the chiefs by a single point. It proved to the rest of the league that they certainly were not a spent force, and it proved internally that they had the muscle and the talent to still put the top teams to the sword. That also was the day where they settled on Colin Slade as their first choice number 10, as he produced a tour de force in top class tactical football from the pivot position, banishing the nightmare experiments of Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor firmly to the archives.
Many people had written the Crusaders off purely on the fact they did not have Daniel Carter, Richard McCaw or Kieran Read available for selection at any one time for a variety of reasons. But one just has to look around the rest of the team, to see a powerful and formidable unit, brimmed full of All-Blacks.
Their coaching staff has slowly began working on combinations minus the big three, and they are beginning to gel. Sure they had a slip up against the Sharks, but the feeling here is, that that was only a blip. Their performance against the Highlanders last week was tremendous and showed their grit, determination and power across the park. Slade is a former All-Black and although no Daniel Carter, is a solid operator in the number ten jersey. Ryan Crotty is a world class centre and Dagg and Nadolo are lethality in human form for differing reasons.
Up front, the Crusaders are loaded with stars. Sam Whitelock is arguably the best lock forward on the planet, and the front row forwards for the Crusaders are formidable. McCaw is almost back to his belligerent best and Kieran Read has been declared fit to play. There is a conveyor belt of talent emerging in the province for the other back-row position, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua and the Whitelock brothers at the forefront. And if Dan Carter should magically come back into this team in time for finals (donít anyone be surprised)...well....
The reality is, the Crusaders are playing at about 75% of themselves currently and are still placed 3rd on the ladder. They are only going to get better. Is the Force the team to derail the Crusaders train?
To beat the Crusaders, the Force needs to have a close look at the performances of other teams who previously vanquished the men in Red and Black. And it must be added that looking at any Crusaders defeat from the first four games of any season is a waste of time. They must look to defeats suffered at the business end of other seasons, to learn anything relevant.
The game I look to most is the defeat of the Crusaders by the Chiefs, in last yearís semi final. The answer is simple, crazed aggression in defence combined with focused concentration for 80 minutes. If you throw severe lineout disruption into the mix, and the Crusaders, just maybe, can be stopped.
If the Force can slow the Crusaders down at the breakdown, they can force Slade into sitting deep and putting bombs up in the air. The Forceís back three, particularly Haylett-Petty and Hayward are masters in the air, and the Crusaders will just cough up ball. The onus is on McCalman and Hodgson to make a mess of the breakdown and slow it down, without getting on the wrong side of the law.
If Corey Flynn should start at hooker, his throwing can be suspect and putting a jumper at two and maybe even risking one at four can squeeze the Crusaders a little. Needless to say, every time the Force gets even near the Crusaders posts, they should take the points.
Finally, Nadolo the leviathan winger is a powerhouse, but he does not like to turn and he certainly does not like kicking. When a territory battle breaks out between Dagg and Slade on one side, and Hayward and Ebersohn on the other, the Force would do well to look behind Nadolo. The other side of that coin is though, that the Honey Badger is no Maradona with the boot either (as we saw last weekend), and the Crusaders will look to do the exact same thing.
Overall though, I canít shake the feeling that the Crusaders are a team coming into form, slowly winding the crank and upping the ante. They, without a shadow of a doubt, will be involved in the shake up and I believe that the team, who puts them out, will win the championship. The Force with a few injuries, unfortunately, is not likely to be that team, and I suspect a brave effort from the Force will keep the score down to around 32-15 in favour of Canterbury.
Over and out,