Altitude effects all in the head?

Codie Taylor carries the ball for the Crusaders. Photo: Getty Images
Codie Taylor carries the ball for the Crusaders. Photo: Getty Images
When a team travels to every match like the Crusaders did after the Canterbury earthquakes of 2011, playing away holds few fears.

Now, as they stand on the brink of glory in Johannesburg far from their Christchurch base, they say successfully playing at altitude is all in the mind too.

Ellis Park, where the Crusaders face the Lions in the Super Rugby final on Sunday morning NZT, is more than 1700m above sea level, an elevation which can take a serious toll on some athletes.

But the Crusaders, who have it written in their strategic plan that a season is a failure if it doesn't finish with a championship victory, are backing mental strength and sheer bloody-mindedness to prevail over tired legs and heaving lungs.

It will take a clever game strategy and accurate execution from their players, but the first step to victory is ruling out any potential excuses and hooker Codie Taylor said one of those messages was delivered by team doctor Martin Swan, who was born in South Africa.

"Our doctor has told us that physiologically the high altitude doesn't affect your body," Taylor said. "It's more of a mindset. That's the way we're looking at it this week - we've just got to push through it."

Taylor, an All Black who has re-signed with the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby until 2021, added: "You notice it. When you play at Bloemfontein it's pretty tough going. The mouth dries up... but you can't do much about it apart from drinking more water."

The second-half collapse by the Hurricanes in their semifinal against the Lions last weekend has been carefully analysed by the Crusaders, who left for Johannesburg only hours after their playoff victory over the Chiefs and have been in the city for six days.

The Hurricanes made all the running the first half, leading 22-3 at one point before conceding just before halftime. Some of their players, including Brad Shields, were clearly tired after 30 minutes and a key for the Crusaders will be to ration their physical effort.

"They showed what they can do when they get their momentum going and I think the Hurricanes were just blowing their legs and lungs out a bit early," Crusaders assistant coach Brad Mooar said. "They certainly took their opportunities but the end of the first half was when the momentum of the game shifted in favour of the Lions.

"We're confident we've got a plan to exert pressure on them and relieve pressure on us and we've got the group of guys who can do that. It just reinforced the threats that they have the homework that they'd done prior to that game. It's a matter of executing our plan.

"They've got a really strong final quarter... it's obviously something that they work towards. The ability to save your legs is really involved in how well we control the game and if we can get our game management right we'll probably find we're running to where we want to run rather than chasing them around."

The Crusaders believe they have the players and the game plan to be able to retain the ball and force the Lions into mistakes. They also have the form; the defensive efforts in beating the Highlanders and Chiefs in recent weeks has been outstanding.

"I'm sure the Lions will have their moments and we'll have to take their pressure and absorb some," said Mooar. "How we do that and rebound from those sorts of moments is going to be critical."

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