WELLINGTON: Even if it only four weeks into the season, the clinical nature of the Canterbury Crusaders' demolition of the Waikato Chiefs has left Super Rugby fans in New Zealand wondering if anyone can stop their march to a third successive title.
Scott Robertson's team were at their ruthless best in Christchurch on Saturday as they scored nine tries from set piece, phase play, on the counter, or in the case of Sevu Reece with an intercept, in the record 57-28 victory.
Backs and forwards interplayed with ease, support players knew exactly where to go and timed their runs to the point ball carriers were confident they could throw a pass and it would land in the hands of a team mate.
The victory was also achieved against a side that have been perennial playoffs contenders for much of the past decade, even if they are now mired in a death spiral with an 0-4 record this season.
On Saturday's evidence, respected sports columnist Phil Gifford had three words for the rest of the competition.
"Be very afraid," he wrote in the New Zealand Herald on Sunday. "The Crusaders of 2019 already look as if they might be better than the Crusaders of 2017 and 2018."
Gifford pointed out that at least eight All Blacks were absent on Saturday, with players like Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Matt Todd and George Bridge sitting in the stands.
The younger players on the field proved just as ruthless, however, with electric fullback Will Jordan scoring two tries and number eight Whetu Douglas as bruising in defence and penetrative in attack as New Zealand skipper Read.
Established All Blacks lock Scott Barrett was also playing better than ever, imposing himself physically at the breakdown and in the tackle and all but cementing himself as the third lock in Steve Hansen's World Cup squad.
"A monster hiding under the bed? More like a multi-headed hydra from the mists of Greek mythology," the New Zealand Herald's Patrick McKendry wrote after the performance.
"Every time there is an injury or a potential setback for the Crusaders, there is someone else to take his place."
Robertson has used that impressive depth to his advantage, even overcoming the nine-times champions' reputation as slow starters to a season.
After a tight 24-22 victory over the Auckland Blues in their opener, the Crusaders warmed into their campaign with a thumping 38-22 win over the Wellington Hurricanes in week two.
They raced out to a 31-0 lead just after halftime and only a raft of substitutions prevented further humiliation for the 2016 Super Rugby champions, the side considered the second best in New Zealand.
The Crusaders beat a young Queensland Reds side 22-12 on the road in week three before Saturday's victory - their 19th in a row since they last tasted defeat.
Their next match brings the Crusaders face-to-face with the last team to beat them when they take on the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday, exactly 364 days after that 25-17 loss at the same stadium.
"It's a great challenge, it's a year on, and we're looking forward to it," Robertson told reporters on Sunday.
"They've got some great young players coming through as well, and a good balance with All Blacks, and a great coaching group."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)