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Craig Dowd
Craig Dowd | Columnist Index
Craig Dowd played 60 Tests for New Zealand between 1993 and 2000, including in two World Cups, and he was part of the All Blacks team that won their first series in South Africa in 1996. He played for the Blues and Auckland in New Zealand domestic rugby, and for Wasps in England from 2001 to 2005. In 2009, he coached North Harbour in the ITM Cup. More recently has been a SKY Television comments man.
Craig Dowd
Crusaders must deliver this time around
Craig Dowd
July 16, 2014
The Crusaders' Colin Slade breaks past Malakai Fekitoa, Crusaders v Highlanders, Super Rugby, AMI Stadium. Christchurch, June 12, 2014
Colin Slade makes a break as the Crusaders sealed second place be beating the Highlanders © Getty Images
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The Crusaders have upped their game, as they always do. They always flounder at some stage of the season, generally starting badly and the odd game here and there, but they notch their points and when it comes time for the finals they are a team that ups their game.

The week off is always hard to measure, it can be good, or it can be bad. What they have done over the past two weeks is to really find their form and sometimes a week off can take that form away.

But they've been there before and I'm sure they know what they need to do. If anything, it has probably added venom and drive from what they have been through in the past in being close but not actually securing a title.

For the Crusaders, it has got to be their year. I am sure that is the talk inside the camp. It has been a long between drinks and now is the time for them to win the damned thing. They also have the benefit of finishing in the top two places, so there is not long travel involved for them. First up they have the home advantage for their semi-final and that is worth five points.

The Highlanders have had a great season and finished higher than anyone expected them to and it has been their best result in a decade.

To come up against the Sharks, in Durban, (and I've been there in 1996 when the Blues needed to win) is going to be a tough challenge. It is a hard place to travel to secure a win, especially with the way the Sharks are playing. They are a quality side right now.

It might be a bridge too far for them but, who knows. Fingers crossed for them as anything can happen in a game of rugby.

There are no surprises anymore, which does not help the Highlanders. When they beat the Sharks back in the early days of the competition not many people knew about Malakai Fekitoa or many of the other Highlanders players; they were a bunch of unknowns really.

But when you get to finals everyone knows everyone so there will be no chance of an ambush coming from the Highlanders this time around. They do have to turn their form around after being thumped by the New South Wales Waratahs and then losing to the Crusaders. But at the same time there is nothing better than being on the road to pull a team together and get one clear focus. But that is harder when you are playing a team like the Sharks. They're a good outfit, a good team.

As the Chiefs head to Canberra to meet the Brumbies I have detected a shift in form and attitude. The Chiefs seem a lot 'doggier' with a bit of mongrel about them recently. It was a sloppy game in poor conditions against the Blues but all they needed to do was secure a win and they did that.

Now all bonus points are out the window and knowing how to win is all that matters, and with that in mind the Chiefs have been there and thereabouts. All the talk has been that the 'three-peat' is dead but I'm sure all the talk inside that camp and that a glimmer of opportunity remains. There are some players leaving the Chiefs who want to put their hands up and go out on the right note.

What it is going to take is the players getting behind the lead provided by senior players who have won championships in the past, just like the Crusaders, and now for the Chiefs it is the same requirement.

The Chiefs' Liam Messam runs through a tackle, Chiefs v Lions, Super Rugby, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, May 3, 2014
Liam Messam will try to inspire the Chiefs to a third successive title © Getty Images
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Liam Messam has turned into a really fine captain. His demeanour and respect among the team are obvious and when he and Aaron Cruden and some of the others step up the Chiefs are a tough team to beat.

It is unfortunate to see Mark Hammett coping some criticism. I'm not sure if it is Tall Poppy Syndrome but as a nation we can't seem to help ourselves putting the boot in. He came in on his own terms and he's leaving on his own terms. All you have to ask is 'Did he leave the Hurricanes in a better space?' You would have to say he did.

Did he achieve what he set out to do? No, but in life nothing always goes to plan and you roll with the punches and you do what you need to when you need to adjust.

The Hurricanes missed out on the top six by one point. I would say they missed out because of their first three weeks in the competition when they lost some key bonus points and put in some bad performances. But they came good and stepped up by the end of the season and looked a really slick outfit.

The Hurricanes, in my mind, are a better team from when he took over so who knows where Mark Hammett's career is going to go? Some of the people putting the boot in, especially some of the journalists, need to look at their own CVs and see what they have achieved in the game.

The Blues' Sir John Kirwan smiles after victory, Western Force v Blues, Super Rugby, nib Stadium, Perth, June 28, 2014
Sir John Kirwan has come under fire from some sections of the media in New Zealand © Getty Images
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As for the Blues, I liked Sir John Kirwan's comments about it being results now and weighing everything up and saying what they want to do is one thing but going out and achieving it, and getting the crew around him to do it, is another.

There's a wealth of resource there to do it. I have my own thoughts around the Blues and they need to walk to the beat of their own drum. They should forget the New Zealand Rugby Union and its rules and regulations and think outside the square about how they can secure the wealth of talent inside the Auckland region.

A lot of it is being filtered out of the region and a lot of the rules around franchise rugby suit the other four franchises but do not suit Auckland because it is Auckland players who end up filling in the holes.

I welcome the Blues coming up with a completely left-field idea and I am sure they are doing that, and good luck to them.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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