Crusaders don't look like a title-winning team
July 2, 2014
The Hurricanes are "capable of doing the unexpected at the right time to break a game open", Craig Dowd says. © Getty Images
What was encouraging for me in the resumption of Super Rugby after the international window was the way the All Blacks returned to their sides and played so well.
That was evident across the board. The Hurricanes had their All Blacks come back and really stand up, and the Blues' All Blacks were outstanding, too: Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu and Patrick Tuipolotu all came back and added something, which is what you want to see.
All the sides should be confident of a good result if their All Blacks perform because those players are that far ahead - and that is the challenge for their coaches, to ensure their stars carry on the form they bring back from international play. At the same time, it isn't quite so clear that it worked for the Crusaders in their loss to the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes and the Highlanders are two teams who looked at the start of the year to be in trouble, but they have really come to the fore.
Hurricanes 16-9 Crusaders (Australia only)%]
The Hurricanes are just going from strength to strength. They look like the Hurricanes of old, but with a certain security in the way they play. They were always very flighty and they had their flaws and, whether it was the set-piece or other areas, they were never the complete team. They relied on their flair and it got them out of a lot of trouble. But if you go through their performance last weekend, they touched up the Crusaders at a few of the scrums.
You could ask where their weaknesses are?
At the start of the year, it was their forwards and their set-piece; but those areas have gone from strength to strength as the year has gone on, and they are getting better and better.
Are the Hurricanes contenders? You have to say, the way they are playing, they are capable of doing the unexpected at the right time to break a game open.
Force 14-40 Blues (Australia only)%]
The Blues' situation was interesting after all the problems they have had getting a win away from home. To start as well as they did in Perth, and to have a four-try bonus point after 18 minutes, was better than anything they had produced all year. Halfback and first five-eighth were crucial to them. We can bang on about the fact that Ihaia West should have been in the team from the start of the year, but it just goes to show why New Zealand is such a great country for players. You give a guy like West an opportunity, and you let him flourish and thrive, and you can see what happens.
I see coach Sir John Kirwan is now chasing Beauden Barrett; and he's already signed Dan Bowden, who is going to play in Japan, and not even appear in the ITM Cup, and then turn up for the Blues without anyone knowing how good he is.
Bowden's been measured playing for Leicester Tigers in the Aviva Premiership in England, and he is coming home via Japan to play for the Blues. All the New Zealand Rugby rulebooks are out the window. In New Zealand, we need to look at the ITM Cup for Super Rugby players. That's the way it has got to be, especially in a position like first-five. How does a player like Ihaia West get measured against a Dan Bowden?
The Blues' performance offers something of a conundrum when looking at the remaining games. Their effort in Perth had been threatening all season, and now it is a case of can they back it up with another away game in Christchurch? If they can back it up, there are not too many teams in the competition who can stop them. But it is purely the top two inches with the Blues. They all played well in Perth but the real catalysts were their All Blacks, who looked really enthused and wanted to play.
Highlanders 29-25 Chiefs (Australia only)%]
The Chiefs to me look like they are spiralling a little bit. Whether it's a confidence thing or what, I'm not sure. They haven't dropped right away, but there is none of the excitement that marked them over the previous two years. If you saw the Chiefs run out and play like the Blues played in Perth, no-one could beat them. But they just haven't offered championship-winning form. They've lost their ability to cover injury worries this year, and I don't think there is an X-factor like there was when Sonny Bill Williams was there. Tim Nanai-Williams is potentially one of those players, but he came off the bench on Saturday. They have the good players but not the X-factor stars.
The Crusaders have a tough finish. They host the Blues in Christchurch on Saturday, and that is going to be a doozie. Both teams have everything to play for. But I don't think this is the Crusaders' year. Again, they've had a lot of injuries to key personnel - and the loss of the world's best player, Kieran Read, for several weeks was crucial - but they just don't look like a championship-winning team the way their All Blacks have come back.
I'm sure Dan Carter will start this week and he might spark something, but it is not about one man. To win a championship, you've got to have key players and personnel. I just think maybe it's just not their year this year.
Scrum5: Finals log-jam good for Super Rugby%]
The Highlanders are an exciting team to watch, and we talk about X-factor with a player like Malakai Fekitoa. You can have two evenly-matched teams, and someone like that can create something out of nowhere. He's fantastic. He's been a real revelation for New Zealand rugby, and he's got a big future ahead of him. The Blues need to get him back.
The game between the Highlanders and Waratahs in Sydney is the game of the round this weekend, as there is X-factor in both sides. The Waratahs have home advantage but they are safely through so the Highlanders may just be the hungrier side.
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