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Crusaders seek redemption

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Sportal.co.nz     15 Jul 2013     Getty Images

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder watched with great interest as the weakened Reds edged the Waratahs 14-12 and booked their ticket to Christchurch.

That was the opponent he had always expected, but the result ruled out a possible meeting with the Cheetahs, who face the Brumbies in the corresponding match.

There was probably a slight grin before he switched off his television late on Saturday night. That fateful afternoon at a deafening Suncorp Stadium two years was still fresh in memory.

This Crusade cannot end the same way.

It was on this week in 2011 that Blackadder came agonisingly close to having his name etched alongside the distinguished men who have led the seven-time champions to the holy grail.

Although the Crusaders won their regular season encounter last year 16-11, the bitter taste has always lingered from the day that Will Genia, Digby Ioane and Quade Cooper stunned the Crusaders to become Super Rugby champions for the first time.

Finals rugby is a different beast and the Crusaders have not tamed the Reds in that arena since the 1999 semi-final at Ballymore Stadium.

Blackadder has one last chance to settle a score with rival Ewen McKenzie, who has won three of the four clashes between them. At the end of the season he will leave the Reds to succeed Robbie Deans as Wallabies coach.

And, after four years without any silverware Blackadder needs to overcome this hurdle, and then some, if wants to keep his job safe for another year. There are rumours that he will be re-appointed regardless, but rugby is full of surprises.

In his favour is the fact that the Crusaders have not lost at home this season. However it was two Australian sides - the Rebels and Waratahs - that came closest to upsetting that record.

The worrying sign is that the Crusaders were far from convincing in their last performance but the same could also be said about the Reds, who should fare better with the return of Genia and captain James Horwill.

Blackadder has ordered in his own reinforcements. Canterbury's favourite son Richie McCaw is set to return from his seven-month sabbatical and will likely feature off the bench.

Both he and Blackadder need this win. There has been talk that the Crusaders empire is falling.

And with age creeping up on McCaw and Dan Carter it may be too late to start thinking about next year, or the year after.

A win in the qualifier is only one step closer. There is still a semi-final and a final to play if they can get there.

But a loss would mark Blackadder's worst ever finish to a season. His men have been halted twice in South Africa and once in Hamilton but never in history has the Crusaders flag fallen during a knockout match in Christchurch.

Falling against the Reds would be devastating mentally. It could also see a few Crusaders, including their well-liked coach, put to the sword in the off-season.