The Great Big NZ Super Rugby preview: The Crusaders

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James Mortimer     18 Feb 2014     Getty Images

That honour belongs to the current champions, who have beaten the Crusaders four times in their last six encounters, and by the high standards of the seven-time winners, that makes for unpleasant reading.

Remember this is a proud South Island team that had won at least a title every second year up until 2008, but since then the Bulls, Reds and Chiefs have lifted the trophy, and each time each of those winners had triumphed over the Crusaders en route to ultimate glory.

This has generated some murmurs, with questions asking how a squad so powerful year in, year out, can’t seem to overcome this proverbial final hurdle – and it is here that again, those astronomical expectations come into play.

After all, the Crusaders are now five years without the title, but they have remained throughout challengers to even the finest opponents.

Not merely have they been among rare company to defeat the Chiefs (one of only four sides in the last two years), but have kept their incredible qualification record intact, reaching 12 straight Super Rugby Finals Series and 15th overall in 2013.

Coach Todd Blackadder, despite maintaining this remarkable record, is a coach under pressure if the high demands of one of the great provincial teams are to be believed, but if there is any such spotlight – one suspects that the championship winning former Crusaders captain is putting the most on himself.

The former All Blacks captain has been the first to admit that there is a missing ingredient, and hence there have already been subtle variations, from the way the team has been training to the mindset building into the season.

Dave Hewett continues to operate a steady ship up front, even though his job is made a little easier by the most All Blacks forwards of any New Zealand franchise.

Aaron Mauger and Tabai Matson input into defence and attack, while working with the back division, but statistics and win loss records support a high performing team every season, so it will not be expertise called into question, but a tiny, or series of, tweaks.

Blackadder has admitted that slow starts, if not less than spectacular closes to a campaign, have resulted in the Crusaders needing to alter their pre-season build up, including insistence that his troops do not build, but explode when it all begins.

The head coach and the seven-time champions may require instant results, a request that all and sundry hit the turf at speed.

A tricky proposition considering the team will slowly integrate senior All Blacks back into the playing group, wary of the management of the national elite, while ensuring that the Crusaders generate as much as possible from their galaxy of stars.

While Steve Hansen might not get too concerned when he sees his Test players not hit full form during Super Rugby, the Crusaders wouldn’t mind seeing their All Blacks contingent create some sparkles early.

After all, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg are first choice internationals, while three more red and black forwards – in Wyatt Crockett, Luke Romano and Dominic Bird – are 2013 All Blacks.

The side is missing Dan Carter, but the absence of the world record point’s scorer in both Super and Test rugby only highlights how crucial the supporting cast will be.

Along with the likes of Romano and Bird, still fresh minted Test players, Tom Taylor and Ryan Crotty – capped last year for the All Blacks – will want to play a leading role for the Crusaders vaunted back division.

As it has always been the old hands, not required by the national selectors, will be the glue.

Andy Ellis, the ITM Cup Player of 2013, and George Whitelock, the constant face during Canterbury’s dominance of New Zealand domestic competition, will be as important to the cause as even the greatest player in the team.

Therein lies some fascination to what will unfold, with McCaw, the most capped All Black of all time, playing a full season after taking extended leave last season during Super Rugby.

He will have Matt Todd pushing his selection credentials, while it will be interesting to see if the best player in the world last year in the form of the outstanding Read continues where he left off.

Statistically, the team isn’t found wanting in any category, with their tries scored during 2013 ranking third equal, their point’s ledger holding the same ranking; while defensively the Crusaders operated the third tightest try prevention screen and were the fifth most efficient side in regards to point’s conceded.

How an efficient operating blueprint is fine-tuned will be the big factor, as will how fast the side hits form, with a result positive start perhaps being the trump card to begin the quest for what has become an elusive eight title.