Tony Smith, May 16th 2011
OPINION: Captain Richie McCaw didn't quite evoke the famous words of television's most notable non-commissioned officer, Corporal Jack Jones of Dad's Army fame. But he might as well have hollered "don't panic" after the final whistle in Bloemfontein, because that was his basic message.
McCaw didn't hide his disappointment as the Crusaders crashed to a second consecutive defeat at the Free State fortress in the city of roses near the Orange River. He knew his team blew a chance of winning rare games on the bounce on an overseas tour for the first time since 2008. And, more importantly, the 33-20 humbling, meant they missed an opportunity to overtake the Blues, who lost to the rampant Reds in Brisbane, at the top of the New Zealand Super 15 conference.
A four-try bonus point win in Bloem would have seen the Crusaders join their arch rivals on 49 points, but in front on points differential. Now, they languish five points behind in wild-card territory as the second-ranked Kiwi team.
However, they remain fourth overall and firmly in line for a playoffs place, with the top six making the cut.
McCaw said the Crusaders made too many errors and they couldn't use fatigue from their epic encounter with the Stormers as an excuse, as they had prepared well and just needed to be mentally strong.
It's a fact the Crusaders have an injury list longer than Tall Black Thomas Abercrombie's arms and were fielding some unfamiliar combinations. But, again, McCaw said that was no reason for "dropping the ball or getting turned over".
However, he said there were "still five weeks [and four games] to go" and the Crusaders were still in good shape after a great start to the inaugural Super 15 season.
The owner of four Super rugby winners medals also noted "competitions like this are won on what you do in the last few weeks".
"What we can't do is drop our heads. We've got to get home and recover, because we've got the Chiefs next week."
And what a different Chiefs team it will be to the underperforming one that has limped through most of the season. Mils Muliaina's men produced a second-half scoring spree to beat the Stormers 30-23 in Hamilton. That's the most points the Stormers have conceded in two years – and 10 more than the Crusaders put on them in Cape Town.
Coach Todd Blackadder could, by rights, be humming the Meat Loaf mantra Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad on the bus heading to Johannesburg Airport today. Coming from behind to beat the Western Force and the Stormers away is no mean feat and the Crusaders banked eight out of a possible 15 points on safari.
But they cannot afford a second consecutive loss against the Chiefs in a short turnaround week.
Defeat by the Chiefs would be a disaster because the Crusaders then face two games of arguably more exacting degrees of difficulty than their just-completed jaunt to Western Australia and South Africa. They travel to Brisbane to play the top-of-the-table Queensland Reds on May 29, then have a bye before meeting the Blues in Timaru on June 11 and ending against the Hurricanes in Wellington on June 18.
There's a definite advantage to topping your conference – you get a rest and a shot at a home semifinal. So the Crusaders-Blues game could be the biggest thing to hit Timaru since the Caroline Bay Carnival.
McCaw and his men have their destiny in their own hands – they just have to hold on it better than they did the ball in Bloemfontein yesterday morning.
- The Press