By MARC HINTON - Stuff
Don't write the Crusaders off just yet, never mind their intimidating next two fixtures as the Super 14 playoff race gets decidedly intense.
That's the message from within the camp, and certainly a conclusion any rational observer would make, even allowing for the massive blip on the graph that occurred in Perth over the weekend.
Yes, the Crusaders lost a match they shouldn't have against John Mitchell's Western Force; and, yes, they are now vulnerable to missing out on the semifinals altogether as they lie smack-bang in the middle of what appears to be a five-into-four race for the playoffs.
Only once before, in 2001, has the Super 14's final four been bereft of a New Zealand side, and some doomsayers are predicting a repeat after the Red and Blacks were embarrassed in Perth.
The Bulls look safe, five points clear at the top and with two of their last three matches at home.
Even a testing finish of Sharks-Crusaders-Stormers shouldn't deny the defending champs, at worst, a semi, and most probably a ''home'' one (it's worth noting Bulls playoff matches will be played in Soweto this year because of football's looming World Cup).
But it's ridiculously tight behind them with just a point separating the next four sides. The Crusaders, Stormers and Queensland Reds all have 34 points and the NSW Waratahs have 33. There's a six-point gap back to the nearest chasers, the ACT Brumbies and our own Hurricanes, and though they both retain hope, it's a forlorn one.
The semifinalists will surely come from that pack of five and the Crusaders are adamant that they can be one of them. Even considering that they visit the top two teams over the next fortnight.
While others might see this as a nightmare assignment against two in-form sides at their home fortresses, the Crusaders recognise a couple of defining fixtures when they see them. Double points time really when you're up against horses in the same race.
Not only can you advance your cause; but you can also make a dagger blow to theirs.
It's tight and it's tense but it's also a scenario that the Crusaders have been through countless times before. They haven't made 11 of the past 12 semifinals in Super rugby by not having a bit of resilience when it's needed.
It's why they look at matches against the Stormers at their Newlands stronghold and then the Bulls at Fortress Versfeld as a couple of assignments that will bring out the best in a franchise that's struggled to get out of second gear this campaign.
Maybe this is just what the Super 14's perennial contenders need.
"It's time to reflect, and have a really good look at ourselves," coach Todd Blackadder SAID after coughing up a 13-0 halftime lead to go down 24-16 in Perth.
"We're definitely not panicking. We've got a really good side, we know we've got men of character, and it's just a rugby thing.
"We're not out of it by any means. Our destiny is still in our hands. There are just a couple of trends we're not enjoying. We will come up with some solutions this week and we'll be right back in it."
You have to like that attitude. Positive. Determined. Confident.
First Blackadder has some serious coaching to do. Twenty-three turnovers against he Force was a shocking statistic. So were more than a dozen handling errors and the same count in missed tackles. At one stage it was like the Highlanders had ran out in Crusaders jersey.
But Blackadder was sure the response would come from his men this week as they sensed the desperation of the circumstances.
"We've just got to correct two areas of our game and we'll be back," added Blackadder of his cunning plan. "We've always responded really well after bit of a touchup, so we'll look forward to this even more. Motivation will take care of itself this week."
Blackadder was even relishing the short turnaround on top of the long flight from Perth. And facing a Stormers side also coming off a defeat.
"Mate, it's going to be a cracker in Cape Town. Everything is on the line, and there will be, I suppose, a little air of desperation about this Friday. I'm pleased with a short turnaround, because we can really focus on what we need to do to get a win."
One win and bonuses could be enough for the Crusaders, but they'll regard two as bare minimum for the final three weeks.
You also sense the Crusaders will be desperate to strike this Saturday morning (NZ time) in Cape Town and remove a little of the pressure for the daunting Loftus assignment.
The Stormers also have a testing finish, following up the Crusaders match with a visit to a Sharks side who have won five straight and are the hottest team in the competition and then rounding it off at home against the Bulls.
The Reds – a real chance to complete one of the great turnarounds after finishing 13th last year – and Waratahs can both slip into the semis if they're good enough.
The Reds have an achievable run home, but will need to collect at least one win from tricky visits to the Brumbies and Hurricanes over the next fortnight.
The Tahs have the easiest finish on paper, with trips to the struggling Highlanders and Chiefs followed by a home closer against the Canes. But a front-row injury crisis threatens to add a degree of difficulty to their run home.
Intriguing stuff. Who can hold their nerve? Who will crumble amid the tension?
One thing we do know is that the Crusaders have done it so many times before, you'd be a fool to bet against them being somewhere in the mix come the semis.