Crusaders Primed to Finish in Top Spot….but it Will be a Tough Ride!

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Super Rugby Rd 6 - Lions v Crusaders
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 01: Ryan Crotty of the Crusaders in action during the Super Rugby match between Emirates Lions and Crusaders at Emirates Airline Park on April 01, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The Chiefs. Rebels. Highlanders. A bye. The British and Irish Lions. The champion Hurricanes–this could be a list of some of the better teams in rugby today, but no. This is the final fixtures list for the Crusaders, as they hope to be primed to finish in top spot in Super Rugby…but boy, it will be a Tough Ride!

Tough because they not only want to finish ahead of the three chasing New Zealand franchise teams, but they must stay ahead of the talented Emirates Lions from Johannesburg. The Crusaders main opponent on the standings ladder, however each will not face each other in the regular season.

Last Word on Rugby use this as core evidence that the current system is flawed. And while most rugby fans will say that it’s favouring the South African side, we must recall how the Lions fared in 2016. They encountered many NZ sides, and made a poorly judged strategic decision to rest players in Round 17–losing to the Jaguares–and losing any home advantage in the Grand Final.

Crusaders Primed to Finish in Top Spot….but it Will be a Tough Ride!

Home advantage is a fundamental element of championship competition. When it is knockout rugby, the top ranked sides hold an incentive. If you get it right, finish in top spot, your side has the perfect pathway to a home final–see above–or, so it goes.

The main obstacles in all other Super Rugby sides way are…..the draw and their ‘fellow teams’. Obvious, but add in the test-like local derby match atmosphere, and that is a tough ask. And then add in the most frustrating aspect of this competition: a rest period right when you should be peaking for the finals series. More frustrating then a delayed flight.

Many fans have heated discussions over how frustrating it is to abruptly halt the competition, just as your team are winning. Not many other International competitions have this perplexity; the EPL have players attend International Football friendlies windows sure, but not for such an extended period.

Note: World Rugby announced that the 2020 Global Calendar may rectify this June Test window imbalance.

After 15 Rounds, Super Rugby Goes on Hiatus

So for the Crusaders, let’s say they do manage to beat the Chiefs, Rebels and Highlanders, they then face the touring Lions side on June 10–four days after the ‘Landers game. That is a tough call itself, but also a challenge for men like Ryan Crotty (see main picture). Luke Romano and David Havili.

When the Crusaders run out to face the British and Irish Lions, it will be a completely different challenge. International quality opponents, and only the home field advantage will comfort the locals. It will be a ‘sea of red’ as traveling fans descend onto the Garden City.

The third match of the 2017 British & Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand sees the Crusaders host the tourists at the AMI Stadium, Christchurch. (Image courtesy of the lionsrugby.com webpage)

After a strong run of success; possibly still unbeaten, Scott Robertson’s men then become dormant. Asked to sit waiting until July 15, when they meet the current holders of the Super Rugby title. Boy, that is tough in anyone’s eyes.

How Can the Crusaders Retain Their Advantage?

Unbeaten is probably the best method. That is probably not a realistic strategy, so LWOR would assume that Robertson and his coaching group will have foreseen the ‘what, how, when or who’. The what is maintaining the conference lead. The how is through winning and good planning. The when is by Round 17, they must hold a better final points tally. The who are the Lions.

The Lions still have to win, let’s not just hand them a home quarter-final. They face the Waratahs (h), Kings (h), Sunwolves (h), bye and then the Sharks away in Durban. So the Johan Ackerman coached side must still perform, ideally with big wins.

Each team will likely play it match-by-match, focusing on winning against the opposition in front of them, but any change in the points will have instant repercussions. Take this weekend: neither team achieved a bonus point, so the same four point margin in the Crusaders favour exists.

RUGBYU-SUPER-CRUSADERS-STORMERS
Pete Samu breaks away to score a try during the Super Rugby match between Crusaders and South Africa’s Western Stormers  (Photo credit MARTIN HUNTER/AFP/Getty Images)

If the Lions are to reign-in the ‘Saders, they are hoping for the NZ team to slip-up against the Chiefs. Or even for the Melbourne Rebels to repeat their 2012 upset defeat. No Australian team has beaten any Kiwi team, so that may not happen. But possibly, their biggest hope are the Southern neighbours.

After the Chiefs, the Highlanders Challenge the Crusaders

This reporter is traveling down to be on hand for that huge challenge, many will say that the ‘Landers are a similar side. That hard working ethic and ‘never say die’ attitude. Tony Brown maybe the foil to the Razor who is coaching the Crusaders [Scott Robertson’s nickname Razor]. So it will be a huge match on June 3.

So if they are still unbeaten, and if the Lions have not shored-in that lead, they will need to wait for the Hurricanes. The ‘final assault’ if you might say. The toughest test, against the 2016 champions who on Saturday were a handful. Robertson told RadioSport that he was ‘stoked’.

“Not many teams have traveled back from South Africa, and have beaten the current Super Rugby champions.”

“The conditions changed, with a mist and dew affecting handling. The home side adapted best, their micro-skills ensuring they could use effective set-play. “When you have an All Black front row, you’ve got to use them well,” but he knows that his side cannot rest on their achievement on Saturday.

Mitre 10 Cup Rd 6 - Canterbury v Otago
Head Coach Scott Robertson of Canterbury looks on prior to the round six Mitre 10 Cup match between Canterbury and Otago at AMI Stadium (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

In four days time, they meet the Chiefs in Suva and that tough schedule is certainly going to mean the NZ teams are best prepared. “With these conferences and the current structure, you’ve just got to win these local derby matches or else.”

By Round 17, the Best Side Will Hold Top Spot

In sport, the toughest survive and prosper at the expense of others. If one of the two protagonists fall, the other will benefit. With a slender four point lead, it’s possible that the Crusaders could lose one match, but if still succeeding in the other four matches, they could still finish first.

A large points difference may end up deciding the ranking. On the same points [imagine 64 points each] the favourable points difference will give the Crusaders that home advantage. And that will have been the goal way back on February 23, when Super Rugby kicked off.

Good planning, management and team selection see both the Crusaders and Lions with similar weaponry. The Lions of 2016 have learned much, and may prove to be ‘a tougher nut to crack’. But then again, they may never have had to face a highly motivated Crusaders team who are playing like the legendary franchise of the 2000’s. They have their mojo back (thanks to Scott Robertson) and for both, it will be a tough ride toward the finals series of 2017.

Last Word on Rugby wish every team all the best, in the final month of competition.

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