Playmakers to decide the title

THE Southbridge magician against the Tokoroa conjurer - part two in a series of (possibly) five blockbuster duels between the best five-eighths in world rugby is on our doorstep.

Actually it's at Suncorp Stadium in six days when Daniel Carter strides onto the new turf to lay out his Crusaders credentials against Quade Cooper, who tormented and destroyed the Blues at the weekend.

The pair are a class apart from the rest of the global talent, men whose influence will go a long way towards deciding whether the Reds take the Super 15 crown in their first foray into a final or the Crusaders march off with their eighth title.

"Quade is right up there - there is Dan then him," defeated Blues coach Pat Lam acknowledged.

The final would be a superb conclusion to see if the travelling Crusaders continue their remarkable run or the Reds surf to the title with the help of a sellout crowd at their fortress.

They have met once this year, when Cooper kicked a late penalty for the Reds' win, they will renew comparisons on Saturday and twice in the Tri-Nations and perhaps at the World Cup.

Any fair comparisons between the playmakers will depend on the work of their forwards, and on the evidence of their 29-10 semifinal victory against the Stormers, the Crusaders pack gave Carter a magnificent boost yesterday.

They ground the Stormers down, munched them in the scrum, annoyed them in the lineouts and harried them at the breakdown. It was a glorious contribution from the forwards in the Foreign Legion and further proof of the mental flint they have shown during this awkward season.

How do you develop such combative creativity, all that unbending spirit and technical application?

It is a tribute to the structures at the Crusaders, the selection and coaching programmes which have been embellished by Todd Blackadder and his management crew.

Trekking to South Africa for Super 15 semifinals has been a rare weakness in the Crusaders' rich rugby portfolio.

Three times in the past four years they have caught that draw and been beaten each time by the Bulls. This time they were triumphant against the Stormers and gave Springbok coach Peter de Villiers more than an eyeful of the tasks his team face this season.

For some reason de Villiers has been dismissive of Sonny Bill Williams but he might have to reconsider that assessment after SBW's round-the-corner pass to send Robbie Fruean to the line. The Bok coach will also need to come up with better tactics than the one-dimensional Stormers' ideas.

Crusaders skipper Richie McCaw may have been the least noticeable in the Crusaders pack in his comeback from injury but if that is the measure, then it shows the quality of the men ahead of him. From 100-game hooker Corey Flynn through Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read, they were all massive contributors, half a pace ahead of their opponents in power and thinking. That resilience after their never-ending travel caravan this season suggests they are the one side who can upset the Reds. You expect them to break, to cave in to the demands but they rarely have.

They began with a sloppy loss to the Blues, shipped others against the Highlanders and Cheetahs and then fell in the last minute to the Reds. That was five weeks ago and will still be a stain in their minds. They probably made a vow that day about revenge if they met again in the tournament.

To do that the Crusaders had to defy Super rugby history going back to 2000, when they won the title and became the last side to win a playoff match outside their own country. No team has repeated that feat until the Crusaders yesterday, now they need one more.

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