Wellington - The Canterbury Crusaders were far from convincing for much of the Super Rugby season but on Saturday showed the calibre of performance that will give their supporters hope they can add an eighth title next week against the New South Wales Waratahs.
Todd Blackadder's side negated a strong Sharks pack that demolished the Otago Highlanders last week and while there were occasions when the Crusaders' defensive line was tested, the South Africans never looked like scoring a try.
The 38-6 victory could not have come at a better time as they prepare to beat the high-flying Waratahs at Sydney's Olympic Stadium.
“It was certainly encouraging,” said captain Kieran Read, who was at his rampaging best in the channels out wide.
“The way we did it was awesome and we are hitting some pretty good form heading into next week.”
Long the competition's benchmark, the Crusaders have endured a relatively lean period in recent years, not winning the title since former coach Robbie Deans left in 2008.
They lost the 2011 final to a piece of individual brilliance from Queensland Reds' scrumhalf Will Genia and in the past two seasons were beaten by the Waikato Chiefs in semi-finals of test-match intensity.
The Chiefs went on to clinch the title both times, prompting pundits to suggest the Hamilton-based side might build a dynasty to challenge the Crusaders' standing as New Zealand's best Super Rugby team.
The Chiefs, however, struggled with their title defence and were dispatched by the ACT Brumbies in the first week of the playoffs.
While the Crusaders at times failed to convince this season, they have shown their ability to take apart any opposition when at their best.
“I think they were outstanding,” Sharks coach Jake White told reporters. “They definitely raised the bar for how you play knockout rugby.”
The performance builds on the momentum of a 40-20 thrashing of the Brumbies at home followed by a 57-29 win over the Reds a week later.
The Sharks, however, fell off the pace towards the end of the season. On home soil in Durban, they barely defeated a Highlanders side who had been hammered in the previous two weeks by the Waratahs and Crusaders.
On Saturday, their tactical kicking game went awry and their scrum was under increasing pressure as the game wore on. Their forwards were fatigued from chasing opponents across the park.
The under par performance was noted by New Zealand media.
“They (the Crusaders) will know the brilliant semi-final victory over the Sharks is a false read - the South Africans were an embarrassing mess in Christchurch,” New Zealand Herald columnist Chris Rattue wrote. – Reuters