Thu, 13 Aug 2020

Crusaders' march to title seems unstoppable

14 Jul 2020, 21:42 GMT+10

For anything but a Crusaders triumph in the competition, they are probably going to have to lose two of their remaining four fixtures from this midway mark - and either of the Blues or Hurricanes (in berths two and three respectively behind them) not have a single further slip-up themselves for any overhauling possibilities.

The prospect of a one-horse race to the finish only mounted last weekend, when the Blues threw everything at the 'Saders in an enthralling Christchurch tussle for well over an hour and led all the way to the 61st-minute mark.

But the Crusaders are a champagne side for their merciless ability to change gears when it matters most, and by the final whistle had earned a 26-15 result in their favour - meaning not even a crucial losing bonus point to their finally out-of-puff visitors.

It was the second time in successive matches that opponents had provided much more than nuisance value to the (overall) defending champions of Super Rugby for the lion's share of the clash: the Highlanders had led up to some 10 minutes into the second half in Dunedin, only to be cruelly trounced 40-20 on the closing scoreboard.

So you might almost say a collective white flag has gone up already from the other quartet of teams in the largely high-calibre tournament.

The unbeaten Crusaders boast a six-point lead at the "turn", effectively meaning a win and a half more than anyone else; they are on a bye this weekend but then complete their programme with games against the Hurricanes (home), Chiefs (away), Highlanders (home) and the already-referenced Auckland climax.

What's more, with the Hurricanes entertaining the Blues this Saturday, one of their closest rivals is likely to fall insurmountably off the pace in title-prospect terms ... a draw wouldnt a wonderful result for the pair, either.

Can anyone see the Crusaders slipping up twice in their remaining quartet of matches?

Making it even less likely a scenario is that they are really on a winning Super Rugby run of eight on the trot, considering that they had won all of their last four games in the broader 2020 competition before the coronavirus brought it to a grinding halt - including two New Zealand derbies.

Their last (and only) slip-up of the year had been back on 8 February, when the Chiefs beat them 25-15 in Hamilton.

When the cruel cut came to fuller Super Rugby in March, the 'Saders were already sitting ominously pretty with 23 points: one behind the surprise-package Sharks but with a game in hand.

The 10-time winners of the competition since its professional inception in the 1996 season, they were bidding spiritedly to become the first team to win it for a fourth time on the trot, considering their triumphs of 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Now a split entity and with no South African involvement, they cannot truly claim to have pulled off that feat if they hoist the "revamped" crown in a few weeks' time.

But Super Rugby Aotearoa would be a sterling achievement nevertheless, and they are handsomely placed for that to happen ...

This weekend's matches:

Saturday: Hurricanes v Blues, 09:05 (SA time). Sunday: Chiefs v Highlanders (05:35). Bye: Crusaders.

Remaining games after that:

Crusaders v Hurricanes, Blues v Chiefs, Chiefs v Crusaders, Highlanders v Blues, Hurricanes v Chiefs, Crusaders v Highlanders, Highlanders v Hurricanes, Blues v Crusaders.

*Follow our chief writer: @RobHouwing

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