James Mortimer 22.Feb.2013Getty Images
Last season: Positioned themselves as the highest wildcard qualifier, fourth on the table overall, and gave themselves every chance of winning the title. The upset loss to the Rebels, which broke at the time a four-match winning streak, turned itself around for the seven-time champions to put more than half a century on the Blues and Highlanders, while a penultimate round win in Hamilton had the faithful believing again. The same script would be torn up in the semi-finals, and once again the Crusaders would trip with another title oh so close to their grasp to the eventual winners.
This season: You wouldn’t be surprised to see a sign saying ‘P---ed off’ in the changing room, frustrated that a title so familiar has eluded the record setting franchise since their last success in 2008. In 2009 and 2010 it was the Bulls juggernaut that halted Crusaders ambitions, while against all odds despite massive tragedy in Christchurch, the red and blacks almost spoilt the Reds party in 2011. Those close memories will steel a team that has many regular troops on deck, although the local production line might not make up for a few missing colossuses.
The coaches: Blackadder has a fine record considering he has maintained what is now an eleven-year streak of reaching the Super Rugby Finals Series. However the Crusaders stalwart, a former captain and championship winner no less, would perhaps like to get his hands on the ultimate symbol as a coach. Tabai Matson and Aaron Mauger come on board as assistant coaches, and with both familiar to the pedigree of the region, one suspects there will be little transition in the back room team.
The forwards: As always the Crusaders packs have been among the most powerful and reliable on the set piece. However last season on more than one occasion, opposition packs successfully got into the faces of the red and black forwards. There are plenty of new faces in the engine room and Blackadder would dearly love for youthful enthusiasm to become naked aggression if a title is to return to Christchurch. Big things expected from the All Blacks locking combination of Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano.
The backs: Once again the Crusaders backline looks the goods, with All Blacks Dan Carter and Israel Dagg combining with veteran Andy Ellis, and rising forces like Ryan Crotty and Robbie Fruean – both of who would love to push for Test representation this season. However the spotlight will fall onto the reigning world player of the year, with Carter unburdened of captaincy duties to allow him to thrive. If Carter fires all season, the odds of the title shorten dramatically…
Big loss?: Yes he needed a rest, but the absence of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw will be a blow for the Crusaders, as arguably the best player in the modern game would leave a glaring hole in any roster. One suspects that in his absence 2013 could be the making of Kieran Read, but another big whole is the shift to the capital for Ben Franks, robbing the red and black front row of Test players on the park and on the bench.
Big gain?: Nepo Laulala (the younger brother of Casey) and Dominic Bird (part of the 2011 Junior World Cup winning Under-20s) are two big lads from the Canterbury system who have been promoted to the big time. But with the exception of Samoan scrumhalf Jeremy Su’a, there are no Test players or experienced campaigners coming into the Crusaders fold, so how efficiently the new blood integrates could be key.
The leader: Already hailed as a potential All Blacks captain in waiting, Read will now step completely out of the shadows of Richie McCaw and lead the Crusaders for the entire 2013 campaign. Finished last year again as arguably the best eight man in the game, but this time the all-rounder will have to do plenty himself, and for all his qualities, he won’t be able to do everything himself. Will a new All Blacks flanker rise from the Crusaders this year as a consequence?
Records: Seven-time Champions (1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008), three-time runners-up (2003, 2004, 2011) Super Rugby Finals Series (2007, 2009, 2010, 2012)
Squad: Tyler Bleyendaal, Dan Carter, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg, Andy Ellis, Robbie Fruean, Zac Guildford, Willi Heinz, Tom Marshall, Johnny Mcnicholl, Jeremy Su'a, Tom Taylor, Adam Whitelock, Dominic Bird, Shane Christie, Wyatt Crockett, Tom Donnelly, Corey Flynn, Owen Franks, Ben Funnell, Nepo Laulala, Richie McCaw, Joe Moody, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Jordan Taufua, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Jimmy Tupou, George Whitelock, Luke Whitelock, Sam Whitelock.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: crusaders.co.nz
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