Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa power rankings: Patrick McKendry – Crusaders’ lesson in humility as other teams scent blood

Patrick McKendry ranks the country’s biggest movers, after another enthralling round of Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa.

1. Highlanders (up 4)

(Beat Crusaders 33-12, record: 2-3)

A result which made a mockery of the Crusaders’ proud home record and is evidence perhaps of a cosmic power with a well-honed sense of humour because few saw this coming, – especially after the week the Highlanders had.

For the Highlanders it was a lesson in the importance of teamwork and commitment, for the Crusaders perhaps a lesson in humility.

It is also a result which has suddenly made this competition far more interesting as the defending champions’ lead has been cut from eight points to four.

Biggest mystery: Why it took the dropping of six players, including star Josh Ioane, after a breach of team protocols (a boisterous party after a defeat the previous weekend) to trigger their performance of the season if not their best ever outside of a playoffs victory.

Problems on the horizon: It will be almost impossible for coach Tony Brown to recreate their unique week of preparation and mentality of last Friday for the visit of the Chiefs this Saturday.

Special mention: Mitchell Hunt. The first-five has enjoyed several special moments at the Crusaders’ Addington home, including a remarkable after-the-hooter dropped goal to beat the Highlanders while wearing red and black in 2017. But his recent performance in the Highlanders’ No 10 jersey would eclipse that because it was inspired from start to finish.

2. Blues (up 2)

(Beat Hurricanes 27-17, record: 3-2)

There has been talk about the Blues’ performance being a bit scratchy or unsatisfactory but such is the pressure to get competition points in Super Rugby Aotearoa – a sprint, not a marathon – that Leon MacDonald will likely be quite happy with how things transpired at Eden Park.

The gap to the Crusaders has been cut to four points and the Blues remain very much the favourites to be the other team in the final.

Biggest mystery: Whether they can quickly return to winning ways after this week’s bye (against the Highlanders in Dunedin) because the Crusaders’ bye didn’t seem to do the champs any favours.

Problems on the horizon: More a challenge than a problem; how MacDonald keeps all his loose forwards interested, because Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu appear his in-form trio at the moment which means Akira Ioane may have to settle for an impact role.

Special mention: Papalii and Stephen Perofeta. Both are performing after a run of games; loose forward Papalii with the possibility of meaningful All Blacks involvement this year following Sam Cane’s chest injury and fullback Perofeta after a horror run of injuries himself over the last couple of years.

3. Chiefs (down 2)

(Bye, record: 2-2)

A bye allowed the Chiefs to take stock after their thrilling last-gasp victory over the Blues in Hamilton the week prior. A win over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday will keep them in the final mix.

Biggest mystery: Will Clayton McMillan persevere with Damian McKenzie at fullback and bring him into No 10 for the final quarter? Most likely, yes, because it appears a winning formula.

Problems on the horizon: There are still question marks around the Chiefs’ tight five, although they performed admirably against the Blues last time out.

Special mention: Sam Cane’s injury opens the All Blacks door slightly wider for Luke Jacobson, who has been consistently good.

4. Hurricanes (down 1)

(Lost to Blues 17-27, record: 1-4)

Went from meritorious victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin to a dispiriting defeat at Eden Park. This appears to be the Hurricanes’ modus operandi this season.

Biggest mystery: They showed against the Highlanders that they have the game plan and firepower to break through, but why, when they have backs such as Salesi Rayasi, Julian Savea, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape, could they not do so against the Blues?

Problems on the horizon: Said inconsistency.

Special mention: Julian Savea. It’s good to see the big fella running with the ball and breaking tackles again in New Zealand.

5. Crusaders (down 3)

(Lost to Highlanders 12-33, record: 4-1)

A glitch in the matrix has sent the Crusaders crashing to a place they’re not used to visiting, although they could have avoided it had they competed across the field with the same intensity and accuracy as the Highlanders.

The biggest spanners rattling around what is normally a refined engine were the 22 turnovers they gave up.

Biggest mystery: Taking the points on offer – penalty shots at goal – was an important plank in the foundations of the Highlanders’ win. Scoreboard pressure tells on any and every team. It’s strange how most other teams – for example the Blues – roll the dice (usually unsuccessfully) on an attacking lineout instead.

Problems on the horizon: The Hurricanes have been difficult opposition for the defending champion Crusaders in recent years and they must play them in Wellington next Sunday afternoon. Another defeat will have every other team scenting blood.

Special mention: Lock Sam Whitelock is still playing very good footy at the age of 32.

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