Super Rugby Pacific: Crusaders embrace unfamiliar underdog status after disastrous start to season

The Crusaders seem to have come to terms with their newfound and very unfamiliar status as one of Super Rugby Pacific's battlers, as they prepare for a rematch with the Chiefs on Friday.

The perennial champions' winless start through the opening five rounds has been the dominant talking point of the competition to date, with pundits and rugby fans alike - at least, the non-Cantabrians - savouring the strong sense of schadenfreude you'd expect when such a dominant franchise falls off the pace.

In an admission which would've seemed almost sacrilegious over the past decade plus of Crusaders superiority, halfback Mitchell Drummond says the team are "100 percent" embracing the role of underdogs.

"It's about dealing with the reality, which is the position we're in, and then moving forward from there," said Drummond.

"It's obvious the position we're in and I don't think many people expect us to win on Friday, which is a position we're loving."  

Drummond admits both himself and the wider team are feeling "under pressure", which has meant there's been a much greater focus over the past week on ensuring their mental mindstate is taken care of.

"It's making sure that everyone is okay, as people," he said.

"It's one thing to be in the position we're in as footy players, but the main thing is we don't want to affect guys as human beings.  

Crusaders coach Rob Penney.
Crusaders coach Rob Penney. Photo credit: Getty Images

The reality of what happens inside these four walls and outside the green fence is there's a lot going on and the more that our young guys and our leaders listen to that, the harder it becomes.

"I've been there in the past when you read things you shouldn't and it's a tough place to be. But I think we've done a really great job of sticking internal and just really making sure we're looking after each other as people."

The Crusaders faced the Chiefs in the opening round of the competition, when they fought back from a 17-point halftime deficit to inch in front, only to be thwarted by two late penalties in what arguably remains their best performance of the year to date.

The trajectory of the two since that night in Hamilton have been in stark contrast, with the Chiefs entrenched in second place on the ladder, looking down from a great height at the cellar-dwelling Crusaders.

While they're at long odds at Orangetheory Stadium, a win over the surging Chiefs would rapidly change their perception.

"We've dealt with the reality and now it's about moving forward to the opportunity that we've got on Friday," Drummond added.

"The mindset is the same. We're turning up Friday ready to throw everything at it.  

"It's a great opportunity for us to have a crack at one of the top sides in the competition. We're at home, in front of our people, and we've got a chance to show people what we're about again."

Feeling the full force of the furnace is new head coach Rob Penney, who has endured a nightmare tenure since taking the reins from the most prolific coach in Super Rugby history and new All Blacks boss Scott Robertson.

Despite his injury-ravaged team's struggles, Penney insists their target remains firmly set on a place in the post-season.

Clinch a place in the playoffs, get some players healthy, and they're capable of hanging with any side, Penney believes.

"For us, the goalposts haven't moved," said Penney.

"Obviously every week we make it a bit harder on ourselves. We've just got to cement a place in the playoffs and we feel as though we're competitive with anybody and, on our day, we can beat anybody.

"We've just got to get ourselves there.

The threshold over the past two seasons for playoffs qualification has been 23 and 24 points respectively, meaning the Crusaders probably need to win at least five of their next nine matches to advance, starting with Friday's replay of last year's final.

"The Chiefs have progressed. They're a team brimming with confidence and we've gone the other way, so it's a real challenge for us."

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