It might not immediately look like a critical encounter, but the Crusaders’ clash with the Force in Perth this week could make or break the red and black’s campaign.
After being slow out of the blocks and dropping games to the Blues and the Hurricanes, drawing intense criticism in the process, the Crusaders found form at home against the Bulls and the Kings. They then travelled to Africa, and, despite being without a number of vital players snared a courageous victory over the Stormers, and earned a hard-fought bonus point in Durban.
If they win in Perth the three match tour can be considered a rousing success. If they lose any confidence they have built up in the past month could evaporate.
Even though they lost to the Sharks the players themselves will understand that a win and a bonus point in South Africa, particularly against two of that conference’s strongest sides, is a positive result. But a loss to the lowly Force would be hard to turn in to anything positive whatsoever.
While the Force have made little impression on the competition overall since they joined Super Rugby the Crusaders have struggled in Perth, with several games being decided in the dying moments, not always in favour of the New Zealanders.
Coach Todd Blackadder would have been looking forward to welcoming champion first-five Dan Carter back in to the run-on 15 this weekend, but a hamstring injury has forced Carter back home, meaning Tyler Bleyendaal will earn another start in the number ten jersey.
Bleyendaal played the game of his life against the Stormers, but was back to looking a little shaky last weekend against the Sharks, and doesn’t look to be the quality long-term replacement for Carter that the Crusaders have hoped he would turn out to be.
Regardless, the Crusaders should win on the weekend. Even without Carter, McCaw, and Read the Canterbury-based side should have too much fire-power, and too much structure, for the Western Australian battlers.
But history tells us not to write off the Force, and I’m sure the Crusaders will be in for a challenging 80 minutes. Win and they will return home brimming with confidence; lose and it could be the beginning of the end for Blackadder’s men, and quite probably the end of his own days as coach of the red and blacks.