The Crusaders are back in business
March 20, 2013
Ryan Crotty and the Crusaders finally found form with a trouncing of the Bulls © Getty Images
It seems like normal transmission has resumed among the New Zealand teams, with the Crusaders finally demonstrating they are not the spent force many were claiming. Their dismemberment of the Bulls showed they are as dangerous as ever.
Of all the challenges, to defeat a Bulls team that was in a confident frame of mind, it couldn't have been tougher. But when you are up against it mentally you have to stand up physically or the opposition will be all over you, and the Crusaders rallied when it mattered most.
It took the seven-time Super Rugby champions a while to get into the game but they were defensively dominant against a Bulls team that have outmuscled all the other teams they have played so far this year.
The Crusaders were more direct, more physical and more dominant. They were not perfect but they looked ominous.
Kieran Read was inspirational and their tight five was abrasive, physical and accurate in everything they need to do. They secured possession and repelled the forward strength of the Bulls. The role players in their side like halfback Andy Ellis, second five-eighth Ryan Crotty and wing Tom Marshall were very impressive, and Marshall was especially outstanding in attack.
It seems a back-up for Read at No.8 for the All Blacks has been settled with the form of Victor Vito. His leadership for the Hurricanes against the Highlanders impressed me at a time when the 'Canes really needed some direction. Working with captain Conrad Smith, Vito inspired them and they are well and truly in the competition again.
The midfield is another area of concern for the All Blacks again this year, particularly after the departure of Sonny Bill Williams and while Ma'a Nonu is still in the running, a back-up player to keep him up to the mark has been lacking.
We may be closer to resolution in the midfield this weekend. Nonu has been out with injury in recent weeks for the Highlanders, but he is expected to be back this weekend. And lining up against him when they play the Chiefs in Hamilton may well be Richard Kahui.
Kahui's fresh legs in midfield may well be vital because the Chiefs have had the long-haul flight back from South Africa this week and that could leave them drained - something that could really work in favour of the Highlanders if they expect to cause what would be a massive upset.
Another thing that has become apparent, even this early in the competition, is the need for sides hoping to win the tournament to have a classy five-eighth. And that's not just for their goal-kicking ability.
At the moment you would have to say that of the New Zealand teams the Chiefs' Aaron Cruden has been the pick of them, but Dan Carter has been close behind for the Crusaders and Beauden Barrett for the Hurricanes is not much further back. You cannot win this competition without a decent No.10, and a really good one at that.
With that in mind I fully expect Chris Noakes to be back at five-eighth for the Blues against the Waratahs. He provides a solid head in a talented backline that was lacking against the Bulls. The Waratahs could have done with Berrick Barnes at No.10 this weekend, but now he's out for six weeks and they are really under the pump.
The Blues expectations going to Sydney must have changed from what they thought might be possible at the start of the season, but the only concern for them is whether the bye last weekend denied them some momentum. The Sunday afternoon fixture in Sydney is a vital one for both teams - the Blues need to rediscover their early season form, and the Waratahs will be desperate to get back on track. Matches between these two sides are usually always quite entertaining, and the Waratahs will be hoping for a better home crowd turnout to help their cause.
© ESPN Australia/New Zealand
Munster, No.8s, the imploding Australians, wonderful Glasgow and Lancaster's dilemma - it is Monday Maul time
As Ewen McKenzie exits stage left, the ARU remains under huge pressure, with CEO Bill Pulver feeling the brunt of Australian rugby's displeasure, Greg Growden writes
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the remarkable events in Brisbane and the first round of the European Rugby Champions Cup
Following Saturday's shock announcement, we look at the highs and the lows of Ewen McKenzie's brief stint as Wallabies coach.