By MARC HINTON - Stuff
Last updated 13:25 10/05/2010
Fear not the chasing pack, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder believes his side has shown the blueprint for toppling the Bulls as the Super 14 comes down to yet another thrilling round-robin climax this weekend.
There are five teams still chasing the three semifinal spots behind the Bulls as the Super 14 heads into its final round of qualifying matches, with the draw throwing up a dream schedule where the top six sides all play each other.
Effectively Blackadder's Crusaders and Colin Cooper's Hurricanes both play ''quarter-final'' matches against Australian opposition on Friday night with their respective tasks relatively straightforward – win and they're in; lose and they're gone.
Bonus points and the fate of the second-placed Stormers, who host the Bulls in the last match of the round, could yet factor into final placings and who travels where for the semis. But for the two Kiwi contenders their mindset will be all about securing that top four spot first, then worrying about how the cards fall in the aftermath.
Whatever happens, someone will have to travel to take on the Bulls, though that task has been softened to a degree with the Pretoria-based side being forced to take their home playoff matches to Soweto's Orlando Stadium because of the football World Cup.
But Blackadder believes his Crusaders, in the course of their agonising – and unlucky – 35-40 defeat to the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday have shown just the style of game that's needed to unseat the defending champions.
The Crusaders, who outscored their hosts four tries to three, played almost the perfect game. Almost, because fate, some skilful scrambling at the end and a borderline call from the referee allowed the Bulls to get out of jail with a post-hooter try.
But there was no doubt the Crusaders had offered the rest of the chasing pack a glimpse at a beat-a-Bull style.
That's to say you've got to play with pace, width and tempo. At the same time kick the ball out as little as possible, and hold on to possession for as long as you can when it does come your way.
It's why, for all the disappointment about the way the game ended for his side, Blackadder remained a relatively happy man in the aftermath in Pretoria – with the crucial two losing bonus points no doubt going some way to assuaging the pain.
"You've got to [take it to them]," he said of the approach needed to knock the Bulls off their stride. "Apart from the end result I thought our performance was outstanding. I thought we showed some vulnerability there [in the Bulls], and we showed a really good template of what you need to do if you want to beat them."
The Crusaders were dreadfully unlucky that their endeavours didn't net more than those two bonus points. The Bulls' first try was a nonsense (Fourie du Preez clearly offside as he snaffled the key turnover), a series of first-half scrum penalties against the visitors were questionable at best and a number of other 50-50 calls all went against them.
But their sharpness, their ball-in-hand work and their ability to find holes around the wider channels was impressive, and left Blackadder labelling it the Crusaders' best performance in two years, despite the final scoreline.
"We showed what we can do when the attitude is right. I was really proud of the performance," he said. "It just showed when the guys are committed, stick to a plan and when the discipline is right we can foot it with anyone."
In other words, more of the same this week for the Crusaders who only got back late last night and face a short turnaround for the visit from a Brumbies outfit who are equally motivated.
"The focus will just be on recovery, then we'll turn around all guns blazing," said Blackadder. "We have everything to play for and I'd really like us to build on what we did against the Bulls and be even better. I still think there's room for improvement in our game. We're excited, but I just hope it's not too late."
The Crusaders have now lost three on the trot, but Blackadder believes that with a healthy squad (no fresh injuries incurred), some real signs Dan Carter is returning to form – "World-class players step up when they need to," said the coach – and the "moral victory" in Pretoria, the worm has definitely turned.
"The Force game particularly was disappointing, but there were some big improvements against the Stormers, and then our backs were against the wall [in Pretoria] and we came out and fired," added Blackadder.
"I still feel like our best rugby is ahead of us, and I think we take a lot from this [Bulls] match. It was desperation and hunger, and it finally got the best out of the Crusaders. It felt like we been under-achieving at times, but I think we can take some momentum from this."
Bulls captain Victor Matfield tended to agree, telling South African media after the game: "The Crusaders are a great championship side who caught us out a few times. They are the best side this competition has seen."
The Hurricanes are just as buoyant as they contemplate a near identical scenario as they visit the NSW Waratahs in an effective quarter-final – with the winner assured of a semifinal spot.
Momentum and the injury situation definitely favours Colin Cooper's side, if not the home ground factor.
The Canes have now won four in a row and are showing real signs of breaking into some top form – with a four-try second half against the Reds at the weekend. They will also welcome back Conrad Smith this week at centre, though Cooper admits flanker Victor Vito is "doubtful" with his calf injury.
The Tahs, on the other hand, have fresh concerns to key front-rowers Benn Robinson and Tatafu Polota-Nau with both under a major cloud for Friday night's key match in Sydney.
"There's so much to gain from winning this week," said Cooper of a round that would be all about focus and mental freshening. "We've come down such a hard road – it's been a rollercoaster ride for us, and it's all just sitting in front of us now. We know if we win we're in the semis, and a loss and it's all gone again.
"Nothing changes in that way."
The Stormers-Bulls match presents the most intriguing prospect of the final-round"qualifiers". There's nothing in it for the Bulls and a Stormers win would seal a second semi in the republic .
Thoughts immediately turn to the top qualifiers not showing much interest in a result they don't need, though the traditional enmity between these fierce rivals tends to discount that. Just how many of their top-liners the Bulls send out should give a good indication of how seriously they're approaching the match.
THE PLAYOFF SCRAMBLE
Crusaders (36): v Brumbies (h). Tough ask, with a short turnaround after a long trip back from SA, but it all to play for. Haven't missed the semis since 2001, and won't want to ruin that record now.