Wellington - Ten minutes of blistering high-tempo rugby against the Otago Highlanders on Friday was all the Canterbury Crusaders needed to send out a warning to the rest of Super Rugby - the seven-times champions were ready for the business end of the season.
While South Africa's Stormers also look in imposing form going into the four-week international break, and the ACT Brumbies continue to surprise in Australia, the Crusaders seem to be building up quite a head of steam.
In their fifth match at in their new Christchurch home on Friday, the Crusaders clinically exploited England international James Haskell's sinbinning and scored 22 unanswered points in the time the loose forward was off the field.
The score blew out to 32-13 and the Highlanders, winners of nine games this season, seventh in the table and looking to stay in the playoffs race themselves, never recovered.
That the Crusaders were so efficient, so ruthless in attack and brutal in defence was, as respected New Zealand Herald rugby journalist Wynne Gray put it, “frightening” and the 51-18 win propelled them into fourth place in the standings on 51 points.
“We are playing like Crusaders teams of the past now. It'd be good to keep it like that,” winger Zac Guildford told Fairfax Media after the Highlanders game.
The Crusaders, who provided 10 players to the All Blacks squad named on Sunday for three tests against Ireland, will face the sixth-placed Hurricanes and table-topping Chiefs in their final two games.
“Home advantage is going to be crucial,” Guildford said of the playoffs. “We'd like to see the Chiefs upset and then, when we meet, get one over them.”
The Chiefs (58) are almost assured of making the playoffs after they held off the Auckland Blues 41-34 on Saturday, a match they had to win with games against the Highlanders, the Crusaders and Hurricanes after the break.
While four of New Zealand's teams still have playoff hopes after the international window, the Brumbies (49) and champion Queensland Reds (44) look likely to battle it out to be the only Australian team in post-season play.
The Brumbies lead the Australian conference and have the easier run in on paper against the Western Force, New South Wales Waratahs and Blues, although only one of those games is in Canberra.
The Reds, however, face the lowly Melbourne Rebels before the Highlanders in the penultimate round and finally the ailing Waratahs. The South African conference also have three sides still in contention with the Stormers' 19-14 win over the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday sending out a message of its own.
The three-times champion Bulls have been virtually unbeatable at their Pretoria stronghold, particularly in the playoffs, and the fact their rampant pack was unable to breach the Stormers' superb defence was a chilling warning.
The Stormers are unbeaten in Cape Town this season, and have only lost twice, away to the Crusaders and then last week in Durban against the Sharks, whose playoffs hopes were upset by their 38-28 loss to the lowly Lions.
The Sharks (45), like the Hurricanes (45) and Highlanders (44), also have a bye in the final three weeks and therefore must attempt to get bonus point wins in their last two games against the Bulls and Cheetahs at home. – Reuters