As usual the so-called media experts have been writing them off, but with the rate of improvement shown in the first 3 games, the Crusaders have emerged once again as New Zealand's flagship team and the one most likely to challenge again for the S12 title.
It looks like Robbie Deans decision to give the team a longer than usual break in the pre-season may pay off! The woefully inconsistent form of the other NZ teams makes this even more significant.
With AB's coming back from injury, the resurgent form of the talented Aaron Mauger, and the wee pocket rocket Soalo finally back in his rightfull place of wing, things are looking good for the team.
There where many standouts for the Cantabs, not least of which was the outstanding tight five and loose forward contributions. Brad Thorn is making a big contribution with his physical presence. He's gotta work at his ball retention from the base of the scrum, but in most other areas he is outstanding. The other Thorn(e) in the Chiefs side was definitely Reuben. Outstanding game from the big No.6. Robertson obviously needs a forward pack going forward. When this happens he becomes effective. Somerville yet again had an outstanding game. For a youngster, his allround game continues to impress. With the locking combinations of Maxwell, Blackadder & Jack you are looking at the best 3 locks in the country. Yet again the pretender Royce Willis being comprehensively outplayed.
With the forwards stepping it up another gear from last week, the backs had a dream ride! Marshall stepped up to the plate & quickened up his ball distribution. This made Mauger's game more settled and it showed. Mauger was quite simply outstanding. Very pleasing to see for most Cantabs as we all know the guys talent. Gibbo had a strong game, his best of the season. Strong on defense and incisive on attack. MacDonald was brilliant at fullback, Ben Blair with his general play and fantastic goalkicking a huge asset to the team, and Soala AT LAST takes his rightfull place on the Canty wing. He was great on Saturday night.
As for the Chiefs, unfortunately there weren't many highlights. Lots of individual performances, but nothing as a team. Loki Crighton had a good game.
Of major concern for the other New Zealand teams is their poor, inconsistent form. None of the others have shown any improvement over the first 3 games. The Highlanders and Hurricanes are their inconsistent selves, hot one week, terrible the next. The Blues look pretty ordinary despite all the hype, and the Chiefs are, well, the Chiefs. The signs are not good for them all I'm afraid.
The major surprises so far has been the Warratahs and the Sharks. However I would not be surprised if they both do a "Highlanders" from last year. Start strong, then fizzle away from home and later in the season.
It looks as though it gonna be up to the Cantabs to carry the NZ flag...again!