Crusaders falter with finish line in sight in Super Rugby

The Christchurch-based Crusaders, who once appeared to be striding confidently toward the Super Rugby playoffs, are now stumbling toward the finish line of the regular season with only two wins from their last five games.
The defending champions failed to take a bonus point from a 40-27 loss to the Hamilton-based Chiefs in Suva on Saturday. Their progress toward a 10th Super Rugby championship might not be as smooth as expected.
The Crusaders lead the New Zealand conference by nine points over the Hurricanes but have only one match remaining, against the Melbourne Rebels. The Hurricanes have two, against the Lions and the Auckalnd-based Blues.
If the Crusaders fail to take a point from their match against the Rebels, the Hurricanes can still overtake them with bonus point wins in each of their last two games.
That seems an unlikely outcome but, few would have expected the Crusaders to lose to the Chiefs on Saturday, having beaten them 57-28 in round three and having built a 20-0 lead after 20 minutes in Saturday's re-match. Nor would anyone have foreseen the Crusaders' draws against the Stormers and the Sharks, which were the first results to slow their progress toward the playoffs.
Recent results have dragged down the Crusaders from a lofty pedestal in Super Rugby and have left them to mingle among the tournament's also-ran teams.
As with all teams, the Crusaders have excuses for their loss of form. The need to regularly rest All Blacks in a World Cup years has been disruptive. It's worse for the Crusaders than for other New Zealand teams because they have more All Blacks in the squad.
Injuries have exacerbated the problem. The Crusaders have been without All Blacks front rowers Owen Franks, Joe Moody and Codie Taylor for much of the past month.
But they are also just going through a bad patch. Crusaders teams seldom squander 20-point leads as they did on Saturday, and it has been 15 years since they last conceded six tries in a match.
Coach Scott Robertson believes the Crusaders will learn from Saturday's loss and be stronger in the playoffs because of it.
"It hurts," Robertson told Fairfax Media. "It's definitely a timely piece of learning and it's going to make us sharper and give us an edge.
"We've got an opportunity to play three finals at home, that's the first thing. We've got to perform next week. We will review diligently and make sure we're really honest with ourselves, because we'll have to be."

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