Super Rugby: Crusaders Favourites but Competition Still Wide Open Four Rounds in

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIMarch 13, 2011

Robbie Fruean was instrumental in the Crusaders win over the Brumbies on Friday night.
Robbie Fruean was instrumental in the Crusaders win over the Brumbies on Friday night.Martin Hunter/Getty Images

The Crusaders put on a clinic on Friday night against a Brumbies side who never looked the goods. After showing signs of potential during their first two games, they were finally able to put together a complete performance and showed that they will be one of the team's to beat in this year's competition. Although there are plenty of team's snapping at their heals and at this stage the title is still anyone's.

Robbie Fruean was a handful for defences and was instrumental in the Crusaders attacking dominance, while also being very good on defence. His try-saving tackle on Adam Ashley-Cooper was a sensational effort and would rank as one of the top try-savers in Super Rugby history, let alone in the season.

Daniel Carter was once again perfect in almost everything he did, while Sean Maitland showed his finishing class by picking up four tries to equal the individual game try-scoring record. This feat puts him alongside the likes of Joeli Vidiri, Joe Roff, Doug Howlett and Mils Muliaina just to name a few.

Their forward pack was good without being brilliant. The return of their captain Richie McCaw should help resolve any issues there, as will the return of Brad Thorn to the starting lineup.

If the Crusaders can be called the current favourites, there is also a group snapping at their heals which make up the rest of the early contenders. This group consists of the Stormers, Highlanders, Bulls (who are closely followed by the Waratahs), Sharks and Hurricanes.

The Stormers have shown that they are indeed going to be another tough nut to crack this year, with an impressive win over the high-flying Highlanders, where they kept the southern men tryless. Their defence is rock-solid and their forwards look to have that hard edge required to win the ball at the breakdown.

The main concern is their attack. The fact that a backline consisting of Jean De Villiers, Jacque Fourie, Juan De Jongh, Gio Aplon and Bryan Habana can only produce one try in three games is really quite astounding.

But as long as their defence continues to hold they will be tough to beat wherever they play.

Despite a loss to the Stormers, the Highlanders have shown to be a different team from last year and will also provide a stiff challenge to any opposing team. They have a ruthless forward pack who look to smash teams upfront before moving wide to their danger men outside, in Ben Smith and Kade Poki.

The first five rounds marked a very hard run for the Highlanders. These matches included a trip to South Africa, a game against the Crusaders on their return, as well as tough games against he Hurricanes and Chiefs to start off with.

Four games through this stretch, they have 13 competition points which must be pleasing for the southern men. Even a loss on Saturday to the Crusaders would mark a very good start to the competition.

They then have a week off, after which the draw gets comparatively easier.

The third team I mentioned as a genuine contender was the Bulls. Many have said that this Bulls team doesn't possess the same threat that the Bulls teams of past seasons have had. They may be right. But write them off at your peril. They are still capable of winning games and will still be especially hard to beat at home. The bye this week will have done them a world of good and they will enter their match against the Stormers with great anticipation.

The Waratahs, Hurricanes and Sharks are all teams who have looked good and are capable of being there come finals time. But they still need to prove themselves some more before I will class them with the genuine contenders.

The Waratahs have looked good against the Australian teams, but it seems the Australian Conference will be the weakest of the three due to none of their teams having strong forward packs. This was evident when the Waratahs took on the Crusaders two weeks ago. Again, a bye might have helped them, but the lack of a dominant forward pack will cost them in the long run.

It's hard to judge the Hurricanes. Due to the Christchurch earthquake and a bye, they have played just two games. They looked far from their best in both encounters, which can be typical of the way the Hurricanes play. But don't write off the men from Wellington, they possess a dangerous team and if they can build momentum over the coming weeks, they may feature come June.

Likewise it is hard to judge the Sharks. Not because they haven't been playing, more because of who they've been playing. Sure they've been winning. But how much do these wins really count for?

They snuck home against the Melbourne Rebels this week, a side who have struggled against top opposition so far. They obtained wins over the Force and Lions, while comprehensively beating an inconsistent Blues side. While they may have won all these games, they haven't been entirely convincing and their true test will come in two weeks time when they take on the Crusaders.

But for now, the tag of favourites rests comfortably with the Crusaders. They have proved themselves and have shown that they will take some beating.

The question for here is, can anyone wrest this tag from them?