Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Is there the slightest chance that a South African team could somehow eclipse those machine-like Crusaders to the Super Rugby title this year?
The odds already look formidably long, not least because the title-holding, nine-time trophy-winning Cantabrians already seem so firmly on the road toward snaring rights to the hardly unimportant home final.
They also hold an unbeaten record against two visiting South African foes thus far in 2019, considering the 36-10 whipping of the Lions and very recent 21-21 draw with the Sharks (having rested several All Blacks, remember).
Now the ‘Saders are on our shores for an arguably even more educative brace of fixtures against the Bulls, at Loftus on Friday night (19:10) and then Stormers at Newlands next Saturday.
Potentially, both are - or should be - relatively perilous dates for the New Zealanders, even if their recent history in South Africa suggests they will hardly be quaking in their boots about either tussle.
Frankly, if we are to cling to any, already tenuous belief that one of our country’s collectively so inconsistent teams is going to manage a credible assault on the overall silverware - there has been no SA winner since the last of three Bulls triumphs in distant 2010 - then we need to see forceful signs over the next two weekends against the legendary outfit that the goal is attainable.
What if, instead, the Crusaders head home gleefully with a two-from-two record?
It would only stiffen the threat, and very significantly, that our quartet of franchises virtually lose all hope psychologically that one of them could travel abroad for a possible presence in the July 6 showpiece and win it … a feat not yet managed by a South African team in the competition’s history.
To maintain any conviction at all that a first SA title in nine years is viable, I fancy that at least one of the Bulls or Stormers needs to knock over the ‘Saders in the next eight days of home-based activity against them.
There is fairly intense pressure on both to do so, given the topsy-turvy nature of the SA conference and the knowledge that just as all teams in it (certainly including the in-form Jaguares) remain in the playoffs race, one or two could fall dramatically off the radar quite quickly as we negotiate the bend ahead of the final straight in ordinary season.
Put it this way: the Crusaders, leading overall and a sobering 14 points clear of best current SA group team the Bulls, would not be overly perturbed if they won one and lost one on this mini-tour, yet will also see no reason to believe they can’t waltz homeward with a 100 percent strike rate from it.
Remember the days of optimistically believing even the finest New Zealand outfits (either Test or Super Rugby level) “will run out steam in the final 20 minutes” on the Highveld?
That old goat’s long been slaughtered: the ‘Saders are just one example of many NZ sides now being extremely comfortable, by contrast, operating at high pace on hard, northern surfaces on these shores.
They will run out at Loftus, too, with a solid group of their players harbouring pleasant memories of trampling the Bulls 62-24 in their last Pretoria visit in 2017, earning a galling 10-3 try count, in the process, in their favour.
Whatever happens at Loftus against what is almost undoubtedly a steelier, healthily redeveloping Bulls combo than was witnessed two years ago, the Crusaders won’t be over-awed by the fast follow-up Newlands clash, either.
They have not played at the tradition-steeped but nowadays fraying-at-the-seams venue since 2013, but earned bragging rights then (19-14) and will also be fortified by the knowledge that they get abundant “home away from home” support in Cape Town from a fervent section of the local community.
In a signal of just how much South Africa’s Super Rugby halo, generally speaking, has slipped in recent years, plenty of pundits may well be backing the ‘Saders to prevail in both looming tour games.
After all, if you just take the last five seasons as a sample for study (2014-18), the Crusaders have won as many as nine of 11 matches here - a rosy 81.81 percent success rate, and including some notably handsome scores in their favour.
It would help broad local morale if that record sees at least a slight recession after this two-game roster, wouldn’t it?
Full list of Crusaders’ results in SA for last five years:
2018: Lions 8 Crusaders 14
2017: Lions 17 Crusaders 25 (final), Cheetahs 21 Crusaders 48, Bulls 24 Crusaders 62
2016: Lions 42 Crusaders 25 (QF), Sharks 14 Crusaders 19, Lions 37 Crusaders 43
2015: Sharks 10 Crusaders 52, Bulls 31 Crusaders 19
2014: Lions 7 Crusaders 28, Cheetahs 31 Crusaders 52
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