Crusaders to silence doubters
Wellington - The seven-time champions Crusaders have slowly quietened the doubters of their Super Rugby title credentials in the past month and a victory over the table-topping Sharks in Christchurch on Saturday should silence them for good.
The Crusaders are the form team of the competition having won their last five games, racking up 22 tries and 195 points in the process and moved from 13th on the table to fourth.
More importantly, they have beaten both of last year's finalists and put a Wallabies-laden Reds side to the sword last week in Brisbane.
Their last defeat was 29-26 to the Hurricanes on March 28.
That result left them languishing in 13th with nine points from five games and many critics writing off their chances and speculating coach Todd Blackadder's head was on the block if the team did not win their eighth title this season.
The trip to South Africa, however, seemed to galvanise the side as they won both games and then firmly showed the machine that normally kicks into gear for the business end of the competition had started and they firmly stamped their title credentials in the last three weeks.
They fought back from a 17-9 deficit at halftime to beat the two-times champion Chiefs in Hamilton then, in possibly their most clinical performance of the season, thrashed the Brumbies 40-20 in Christchurch.
They followed that with another stunning second-half display to demolish the Reds 57-29 at Lang Park last week.
The victory, their first in Brisbane since 2008 when they last won the title, was ruthless in its execution as they targeted inexperienced winger JJ Taulagi's side of the field and prompted one Canterbury fan to simply remark "be afraid".
The Crusaders have achieved their last three results without captain Kieran Read, who will not play again this Saturday after suffering concussion in the Chiefs game.
Read's absence, however, has been more than adequately covered with the return of All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw from a broken thumb after two months on the sidelines.
The talisman flank has been his annoying best at the breakdown and in the ear of the referees, even though inside centre Ryan Crotty is officially the on-field captain.
McCaw's influence will be needed again at Rugby League Park on Saturday when they face a Sharks team who had set the pace of the competition when they won seven of their first nine games, all in the Republic.
There are some indications, however, their momentum may be slowing.
When the Crusaders lost to the Hurricanes the Sharks were on 23 points, having lost once in their first six games.
Since then Jake White's team have played a further five times but added just 13 points to their competition tally.
Their last match at home before they embarked on their current four-week road trip was a 34-18 loss to the Highlanders.
They sneaked to a 22-16 win over the Rebels in Melbourne then were beaten 16-9 by the Brumbies, who implemented their former coach's conservative, kick-out-of-your-own-half game plan better than his new side, last week in a wet Canberra.
One of the positives for the Sharks' likely tactics, however, has been the decision by Blackadder to rest counter-attacking fullback Israel Dagg for the clash.
"We've been really happy with the way he's been playing," Blackadder said of the decision. "But there are some early signs of wear and tear and we just want to make sure that we manage that so that he can continue to play at his best."