As at the beginning of every Super Rugby season, the odds are in favour of the Crusaders to lift the coveted cup. However, they’ve not been able to claim the title since Todd Blackadder took over as head coach in 2009.
This will be Blackadder’s fifth year at the reigns and it is speculated that he might be sacked if they have another “unsuccessful” season. I’m really using the word unsuccessful very loosely if you consider that they’ve been in all the semi-finals and one final during his tenure – a feat any team would desire. This is obviously just not good enough for the best of the best. Good luck Todd!
The most notable difference when you look at their 2013 squad is the absence of their iconic leader, Richie McCaw, who has taken a 6 month sabbatical to get some mental rest before returning for the final few round robin matches. This finally gives Matt Todd the opportunity to stake his claim on the number 7 jersey, but be sure that he’ll have some strong competition coming from new signing Shane Christie.
Other recognizable names missing from the line-up are those of Ben Franks, who grew tired of competing for a start with brothers Owen and Wyatt Crockett, back-up hooker Quentin McDonald (to the Blues), Sean Maitland (to Scotland) and Zac Guilford (out receiving treatment for alcohol problems).
They have pretty efficient second rowers in the form of Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and young Dominic Bird – some arguments have been made that this Canterbury lad is the form lock in New Zealand Rugby at the moment.
With captain Kieran Read at the back of the engine – considered by Blackadder as the best number 8 in the world – and brothers Luke and George Whitelock added to the mix, yet again you have a pack that could quite easily be the envy of any team.
Throw in another handful of All Blacks along the backline and the entire side speaks of class right across the park.
Andy Ellis had a superb 2012 and will be determined to get back in the Kiwi squad. Dan Carter needs no introduction; anyone alive knows what a fit Carter is worth. Put the deadly combination of Robbie Fruean and Ryan Crotty outside the halfbacks, round it off with the opportunistic Israel Dagg and you have firepower that will intimidate any defense.
You might have noticed that I was a couple players short in naming my “running” players that’s because the only experience they have out wide is that of Adam Whitelock – I should add that he has improved with every appearance. Canterbury’s Johnny McNicholl has been added to the squad and should cause a stir by slipping tackles and running excellent supporting lines the way he did in the local ITM Cup. With Guilford and Maitland missing, the Saders had their sights set on New Zealand Sevens star Kurt Baker to add some depth to the winger department. Sadly, that option has been quashed after Baker tore a hamstring at the Wellington leg and would be out for 6 weeks. The latest development sees a call to Highlanders reject Telusa Veainu.
Only a handful of first choice players featured in the warm-up match against the Hurricanes, and by all accounts it was a messy affair full of handling errors. The crowd got treated to 9 tries though, 4 to the Saders and 5 to the Canes. The 27-26 loss actually flatters the men from Canterbury, as the margin could easily have been bigger if André Taylor had his kicking boots on.
There is no doubt that this is a very impressive starting fifteen, but an average team uses about 30 players per season. That gives the Crusaders’ squad a rather depleted look this year, and with a competition as tough as this one, you just can’t bank on key players not getting injured – there needs to be good backup.
Considering all of this, I am confident that they won’t disappoint (again used in the normal sense of the word as used by ordinary fans), and they’ll certainly be one of the teams to beat, but whether they can go the distance is a different question.
My prediction for the Crusaders is a play-off spot in 5th place overall and maybe, just maybe, a spot in one of the semi-finals.
by Jackie Smit