Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Crusaders right back in the race
Sunday May 16, 2010

People make a lot out of the fact that the NRL produces contests where anybody can beat anyone and that the Super 14 is more predictable. Well, it hasn't worked out that way lately.
First, the Crusaders end a three-match losing streak with a performance that deals them right back into the title race. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, after a winning run that had them well-placed to make the playoffs, dropped their bundle. The Waratahs were good; the Hurricanes were awful.
Let's look at the Crusaders first. It was great to see them back with enthusiasm and attitude. They went out there to win the game; to play positively; and it augurs well for this weekend's semifinals.
I struggled to find a weakness. Maybe some of their first-up defence needs attention as they fell off a few tackles - but that was about it. The Franks boys had big games at prop as did Ti'i Paulo at hooker. They were a big reason why they monstered the Brumbies' scrum. The second row also stood up - Brad Thorn with his usual strong game and young Sam Whitelock showed why Chris Jack was on the bench.
Whitelock is becoming more and more impressive. He's got height, weight and mobility and does the basics well. I said a few weeks back it was too early to be talking of him as an All Black prospect but I am revising that opinion now.

He made several important tackles - proper tackles, not scrags - and he corner-flagged a few times. He gets into the rucks and mauls well, too. He could be a handy customer by World Cup time. I hope Isaac Ross gets back into it but, really, you'd have to say he is not being missed at the moment.
Kieran Read had a good game, perhaps his best this season, as did Richie McCaw and Owen Franks gave the much-touted Wallaby Ben Alexander a hiding in the scrums. Ben Franks did well at loosehead and in general play and I'd suspect that is the front row they'll play against the Bulls or Stormers; Wyatt Crockett struggled when he came on.
Incidentally, most people are picking the Crusaders will be up against the Bulls; that resting 13 players will allow the Stormers to win overnight. I have no problem with this. The Bulls have won just about everything and play in a competition which allows you to earn extra points. They did that and they had a perfect right to do what they did.
I also think the Crusaders won't mind meeting the Bulls - if that is what happens - as they nearly beat them last time and will fancy another crack at them. However, we'll see. The boys from Pretoria and the boys from the Cape never do each other any favours and I remain sceptical that anything is being handed to anybody.
Back to the Crusaders - Andy Ellis had another good game at halfback and Dan Carter played well, even if his goalkicking gave him a headache early. If he'd kicked those goals, I think the Brumbies might well have cracked wide open.
Daniel Bowden had a good game at second five-eighths and Zac Guildford looks stronger and more robust, without losing any speed. I think he's another who could be quite some player by the time of the World Cup.
What can you say about the Hurricanes? Not much. They were terrible. Their best player was Karl Lowe and they subbed him off. The front row were dreadful, especially after they lost Andrew Hore to injury and I thought many of the pack just looked unfit and out of it, including replacement hooker Dane Coles who started his career looking so full of life.
Rodney So'oialo worked hard but was reduced to mopping up all day; he got little support.
Piri Weepu was ordinary and the backs never got a look in as the Waratahs dominated possession and, when the Canes got some, they made mistakes.
I've heard many pushing first-five Aaron Cruden as an All Black. Not yet. This game showed him up and the fact he does not yet control a match. He hasn't got the tools or the experience and has weaknesses.
Meanwhile, the Waratahs' forwards had a field day.
Their front row did the business even without leading prop Benn Robinson and their loose forward trio were the players of the night, especially skipper Phil Waugh.
They would have come out of this match full of confidence for this weekend, had it not been for injuries to prop Dan Palmer. That could hurt them against the South Africans.

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