Having already clinched their fourth consecutive Super Rugby championship in Christchurch at the weekend against the gutsy Highlanders, the Crusaders will treat this Sunday’s last game against the Blues at Eden Park as though it were a final.
So they should because the Blues are the most improved team in the competition, having moulded a powerful scrum that should severely test the Crusaders’ renowned technique and muscle.
Matching their cohesion and bettering a lineout in which Sam Whitelock reigns supreme will be more difficult but the Blues don’t lack courage, commitment, and exciting game-breakers.
Ditto the Crusaders when you look at the backline class of Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge, Sevu Reece, and Will Jordan.
With Finlay Christie having bettered brilliant Highlander halfback Aaron Smith recently, Beauden Barrett will be hoping he retains that form to help him in his clash with Mo’unga who continues to be Aotearoa’s champion first-five.
That’s a challenge two- time World Player of the Year Barrett should relish to silence those critics who have prematurely written him off. True, he hasn’t consistently matched the class of Mo’unga, but he’s far from a spent force.
Still he needs to prove it against the Crusader’s wizard because his versatility doesn’t guarantee him the option of the fullback berth ahead of in-form brother Jordan and Damian McKenzie.
Should the All Black selectors be searching for a really fast centre, they will relish the chance to compare Ennor against the thrust of Rieko Ioane.
Bridge and Reece are worthy All Black wings but there’s also much to like about rising star Caleb Clarke.
With the Highlanders winning fast ruck ball and Aaron Smith distributing it beautifully, it was only in the final quarter the Crusaders hit the front, scoring three of their four tries, two within three minutes to wing Bridge.
The Highlanders managed three, the best a full length of the field intercept runaway by Jona Nareki after impressive flanker Shannon Frizell crashed over for the first early.
Although forced to play second fiddle to Mo’unga, young Josh Ioane produced much the same gifts of vision, elusiveness, and timely passes that has made the Crusader maestro such a major force.
With a North versus South match to be resurrected after too long in limbo, the local derbies of Super Rugby Aotearoa have given the national selectors a wonderful insight into the talent available.
There is some amazing talent, especially in the loose forwards and backs where there is so much depth.
Meanwhile having been the only team to beat the defending ANZ champion netball side, the Centra Pulse, 44-42, the much-improved Northern Mystics fell once again to the Mainland Tactics 43-44 in yet another nail-biting thriller.
Patience and the ability to retain possession were keys to the Tactix success when sensational Mystics goal shoot Grace Nweke was reduced to 37 goals from 42 attempts, including the last five of the match despite the double-marking of Silver Fern Jane Watson and fiesty Temalisi Fakahokotau.
Without injured goal attack Bailey Mes, too much expectation is placed on Nweke who leaps high to catch the bullet passes of wing attack Peta Toeava. However, she has responded magnificently for one so young.
Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sportswriter and author