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Bubble and squeak

My, how things can quickly change.

A little over three weeks ago, the New Zealand rugby season was heading downhill fast.

The Crusaders were looking like odds-on favourites to take out a fifth Super Rugby title on the trot and fans were coming to terms with the probability that we were set to witness a third round of Aotearoa action given a possible Australasian travel bubble looked doubtful.

That would have been a difficult situation to stomach.

The Crusaders and Blues both opened their campaigns with back-to-back wins and while the Crusaders are still the clear favourites for this year’s competition, the All Black-laden Blues were expected to put up a solid fight.

The Hurricanes, Highlanders and Chiefs, meanwhile, had just a solitary win between them.

Come the Round 4 square-off between the Crusaders and Blues, and things went from bad to worse.

It was a match that had been many months in the waiting. The Crusaders had scored a tense win over their rivals in Christchurch last year but their final-round clash in Auckland was called off due to COVID.

Crusaders captain Scott Barrett is thumped in a tackle by Highlanders Bryn Evans, left, and Kazuki Himeno in the recent Super Rugby Aotearoa upset in Christchurch. (Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

A pre-season match was touted but that too was disrupted by the pandemic and all eyes were on Eden Park for the game that everyone had been waiting for – the game many suspected would prematurely decide the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions for 2021.

Despite all the build-up, the game itself was nothing to get too excited about. The Crusaders flexed their muscles and went into the half-time break with a handy nine-point lead. By the end of 80 minutes, they had well and truly smothered their opposition to secure a comfortable 43-27 win.

So much for the top of the table clash.

We were suddenly faced with the very real possibility that the Crusaders would book themselves a spot in the final with two or three weeks left in the competition while the Blues, their only real challenge, had well and truly been brought crashing back to earth by their southern rivals.

You could have called the competition off then and there and the outcome would be much the same, with the Crusaders crowned champions for the fifth consecutive year.

Was anyone really excited at the possibility of a third round of Aotearoa fixtures, if the New Zealand and Australian unions couldn’t settle on a base of operations for the proposed Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition?

We were suddenly faced with the very real possibility that the Crusaders would book themselves a spot in the final with two or three weeks left in the competition.

With the Crusaders in a rich vein of form, it was looking like another five weeks of predictable results, with the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders muddling their way to victories over one another with the Blues emerging from the pack and the Crusaders dismantling all who stood in their way.

That same weekend that the Crusaders dealt to the Blues, however, something remarkable happened.

The Chiefs, seemingly against all odds, managed to secure a win.

Nineteen points down against the Hurricanes and staring down the barrel of an 11th consecutive loss, Damian McKenzie sparked his side to life and helped the Chiefs produce arguably one of the most impressive wins of their 26-year history.

Now, three weeks on from those matches, things are looking much more interesting.

A week after breaking their duck, the Chiefs recorded a shock win over the Blues while the Hurricanes were able to get off the bottom of the ladder with a Jordie Barrett-inspired victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

Still, the Crusaders watched on from their ivory tower, content in knowing that even with the bye round, they weren’t going to lose any of the advantage they had over their next closest rivals.

Damian McKenzie sparks another attack for the Chiefs to help his side overturn a 19-point disadvantage against the Hurricanes in Wellington recently. It was the Chiefs’ first ever Super Rugby Aotearoa victory. (Photo by Masanori Udagawa/Getty Images)

But that wasn’t the end of it.

While the Blues got back to their winning ways over the weekend, prevailing over the Hurricanes at Eden Park, the Crusaders were outclassed and outplayed across the park by a hungrier, deadlier Highlanders side who were thirsty for blood.

All of a sudden, the Crusaders weren’t quite so infallible.

The Blues, meanwhile, have righted their ship while the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes have all found another gear to their games.

Even if another round of Super Rugby Aoteatoa were scheduled, would it be the worst thing in the world?

While it’s still looking inevitable that the Crusaders will book a home final, the Blues are no longer assured of meeting them at Christchurch, with the Highlanders and Chiefs drawing near over the past three weekends.

And the Crusaders, despite still possessing the strongest squad in the competition, have shown that they’re not the immovable objects that many suspected.

On an off night, when the opposition really come to town hungry, anything is possible.

We need to play the Aussies and they need to play us for the good of the game. I get quite frustrated when people have a bit of a crack at the Aussie comp.

Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan

While the 2021 competition may still not be wide open, the door is definitely ajar – but that’s not all that’s worth getting excited about.

Yesterday it was announced that an isolation-free travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia would kick off on April 19.

That means, unless we end up taking a step backwards, the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition can go ahead as scheduled, with teams flying between countries on a weekly basis.

It won’t be completely free-flowing, of course. There are parts of Australia that are still afflicted by COVID and it’s entirely possible that the Reds or Rebels may decided to base themselves outside of their home states – but it’s still a massive step in the right direction.

Those who have tuned into Super Rugby AU every weekend may believe that the Australian sides – particularly the Reds and Brumbies – are more than a match for their Kiwi rivals.

There are others who think the gap in skill has never been wider.

One way or another, we’ll have a gauge in the near future as to the relative strengths of the two nations.

“We want it and I think the fans want it,” Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan told The XV. “We need to play the Aussies and they need to play us for the good of the game. I get quite frustrated when people have a bit of a crack at the Aussie comp, saying ‘It’s not this and it’s not that’. It’s rubbish. We need to play the Aussie teams.

“If it goes ahead it’s good for everyone – good for the coaches, good for the players and good for the fans. Hopefully we can get on with it.”

Robert du Preez of the Stormers runs into some heavy traffic in his side’s quarter-final defeat to the Chiefs in Cape Town in 2016. (Photo by Thinus Maritz/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

A lot has changed since 2020 but in last year’s seven ‘crossover’ matches against Australian teams, the Kiwi sides had a comfortable 5-2 advantage, scoring 209 points and conceding 147.

Take the hapless Waratahs out of the equation, however, and things are considerably more even. In fact, although results are tied 2-2, the Australian sides actually have a better points differential over their neighbours.

On the one hand, putting together a string of victories may have bolstered the belief in the Reds’ and Brumbies’ camps. On the other, they may find the New Zealand teams a completely different kettle of fish to the sides they’ve now becomes accustomed to exclusively competing with.

In 2016, when Super Rugby first expanded to an 18-team competition and four South African sides went through the entire regular season without playing a team from New Zealand, the high-flying Stormers were crushed in their home quarter-final against the Chiefs.

After the match, which finished 60-21 in the visiting side’s favour, Stormers head coach Robbie Fleck admitted that not playing any Kiwi sides throughout the round-robin severely hampered his side come finals time.

“We didn’t know what to expect and what the Chiefs hit us with in the quarter-final was a level above what we were used to,” he said. “They really played well in that game and they asked a lot of questions that we could not answer.”

Perhaps it will be a similar story for the Australian sides in the upcoming series – or perhaps it will be the New Zealand teams who are caught with their pants down.

Either way, a few key questions will be answered come mid-May, when Super Rugby Trans-Tasman is set for kick-off.

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