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Points table pressure adds to Crusaders' challenges

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Lynn McConnell     18 May 2017     Getty Images

Home-town advantage is a big factor in play-offs and the Crusaders especially know that to enjoy it to the fullest they need to finish at the top of the ladder.

But with the Chiefs in Suva on Friday, the Rebels away and then the Highlanders (home) and Hurricanes (away) the Crusaders have a daunting finish, certainly tougher than their closest rival for the top of the table, the Lions.
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Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said: "We're well aware of, and clear of, our requirements for a home final. The difference for us between finishing first and fifth is fine margins. We're still in charge of where we finish if we perform."

And mid-field general Ryan Crotty said: "There's massive pressure, just that New Zealand conference is so competitive and if you drop a game you could find yourself in fifth or sixth but in saying that you just look at how you prepare. Results and points take care of themselves if you prepare well and perform on the field and that's how we're approaching this week," he said.

Suva is a tough challenge for the leaders. The Chiefs have got under the Crusaders skin in recent years and there is also the heat factor in Fiji after such a tough game against the Hurricanes at the weekend.

Robertson said the short turnaround meant they travelled on Tuesday making Wednesday a big day practice-wise.

"The [against the Hurricanes] load was very heavy. Our running metres and contacts were huge in that game," he said.

The bodies had recovered and the minds were clear and ready to take the bodies where they needed to go because it was a challenge to get up six days after playing the champions on top of a trip back from South Africa.

"It's great, we love the challenges the draw provides us with," he said.

Robertson said it was expected lock Scott Barrett would be out until the Lions game on June 10, or possibly earlier, while it was a case of feeding fullback Israel Dagg back into the team environment. Sam Whitelock was also keen to get back into action after his two-week suspension.

He was aware the scrum would be a big emphasis again, especially as the Chiefs' mindset around it was similar to the Crusaders.

In terms of their kicking game the Crusaders were well aware of Chiefs' fullback Damien McKenzie's strengths and they would have to be good around him and try to limit his opportunities.

Crotty said the intensity of the Hurricanes game put an onus on the players to be diligent in their recovery and that was especially the case on the shorter six-day turnaround.

He was expecting a similar test against the Chiefs because like all New Zealand sides they played what they saw, they were a smart side and always brought physicality and niggle and it was a case of matching that.

Conditions were going to be tough, the heat would make sure of that, and it was essential to have the tactical plan right from a team point of view but also individual plans about coping with the humidity, he said.

Crotty said the development of first five-eighths Richie Mo'unga had been significant in the two seasons he had played with him. His composure and confidence had grown and the pair had worked closely together on his game.

"He's really become a leader in our team and he drives a lot of things in our environment. He has a real voice which you kind of have as a 10 but he's really come into that role this year and I think the other thing is his skill set. He can step off both feet, rip a good ball with both hands, his vision, turn of pace and how he has stayed grounded over the last two years has really impressed me as well," he said.

And outside him Jack Goodhue at centre had enjoyed a big first season.

"You wouldn't pick it was his first season of Super Rugby. Jack is an outstanding footballer. Defensively I think he is international class. And his attacking has come along really nicely. He's big, strong, he runs hard lines, he's smart as well. He's very intelligent," he said.

Mo'unga and Goodhue were typical of all the young players in the squad who had remained humble and were working hard to develop their respective games.