Super Rugby Preview: Crusaders

Date published: February 20 2016

1022.6666666666666x767__origin__0x0_Richie_Mounga_Crusaders

Before the start of Super Rugby 2016 we take a closer look at each of the sides in the competition. Next up, the Crusaders.

It'll be a strange sight watching the Crusaders run out at AMI Stadium without Richie McCaw and Dan Carter in the red and black after years of outstanding service.

More quality players in Colin Slade, Tom Taylor, Dominic Bird and Luke Whitelock have also left Christchurch, so it's a compliment to the depth the Crusaders have that their squad still looks competitive.

Super Rugby's seven-time champions haven't lifted the title now since 2008 – last reaching the final in 2014 – and while there is a burning question over who should run the show at fly-half, ruling them out would be foolish.

Last Year: In the end the Crusaders missed out on the play-off places by just a single point, as the Brumbies pipped them to sixth place and the final wildcard spot, despite the Crusaders winning the meeting between the two sides' in Round 18 in Canberra.

2015 started off on a low note with a shock loss to the Rebels at AMI Stadium followed by being well beaten away to the Chiefs two weeks later. A Round 4 bye week came at the right time as the Crusaders got back on track with big wins over the Lions (34-6), Cheetahs (57-14) and Sharks (52-10). 

But losses to the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes derailed their run for play-off spots, a Round 15 defeat to the Waratahs eventually ending their battle to make the knockout stages.

The barnstorming runs of Nemani Nadolo resulted in him finishing with the third most tries of the year, with nine, as the Crusaders finished 2015 boasting statistically the second best scrum in Super Rugby.

This Year: McCaw and Carter might have been wrapped in cotton wool during their last couple of years with the Crusaders but the influence those two legends of the sport projected onto the squad is hard to replace.

The onus is on Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg, when he returns from injury, to inspire the younger players moving forward.

A two-game tour of South Africa aside, the Crusaders have one of the least draining travel schedules of any side in the competition. Three home matches to kick off the year should enable Todd Blackadder and his coaching staff to settle on a best option at fly-half out of Marty McKenzie, Fiji international Ben Volavola and Richie Mo'unga.

Blackadder has already announced that he leave the Crusaders at the end of the season after eight years, having reached the Super Rugby final twice and lost on both occasions to the Reds in 2011 and Waratahs two years ago.

A repeat of last year's slow start would be unacceptable given that the Crusaders will only play one side from the 2015 play-offs (Chiefs) in their first eight games. 

Key Players: Read will miss the first three rounds of the competition due to an extended lay-off following the World Cup, handing the captaincy reins to Sam Whitelock. On course to become the most capped player of all time, with 73 to date at the age of 27, Whitelock's spectacular solo try against the Reds last year reminded us what an athlete he is. 

Nemani Nadolo has set a high standard for himself after dominating the competition in 2014 and 2015, making himself a fan favourite in the process with his bruising carries, and the Crusaders will need more of the same.

The Crusaders' fly-half race has seemed wide open in pre-season, but we saw flashes of genius from Ben Volavola for Fiji last year at the World Cup. He might just need an extended run to really settle into the role amidst some tough competition from McKenzie and Mo'unga.

Players to Watch: After missing out on the Rugby World Cup we're expecting a bounce back year from Israel Dagg by the time he returns from a shoulder injury.

Jordan Taufua should spend less time on the bench and more producing excellent ball carries and turnovers at the ruck, just like we saw in 2015, as he bids to try and break into the All Blacks set-up this year. 

Codie Taylor trod that path to a Test jersey last year and the young hooker, still 24, will now be expected to consistently deliver. New signings Sione Fifita and Sean Wainui have also been tipped to make an impact in the backline.

Prospects: The battle to top the New Zealand Conference should be tighter than ever with the Blues improving and the other four New Zealand franchises finishing in the top seven in 2015.

Reading too much into pre-season results is always dangerous – even a 74-7 thrashing from the Hurricanes – and if the Crusaders can settle on the right man at fly-half then even with McCaw and Carter gone, the quality is there in their squad for them to be right in contention for the wildcard spots.

Players In: Michael Alaalatoa (Waratahs), Tim Boys (Southland), Peter Samu (Tasman), Marty McKenzie (Chiefs), Ben Volavola (Waratahs), Sean Wainui (Taranaki), Sione Fifita (Counties Manakau), Mitchell Hunt (Auckland)

Players Out: Nepo Laulala (Chiefs), Dominic Bird (Chiefs), Richie McCaw (retired), Luke Whitelock (Highlanders), Billy Guyton (Blues), Willi Heinz (Gloucester), Dan Carter (Racing 92), Colin Slade (Pau), Tom Taylor (Toulon)

Fixtures:

Saturday, 27 February v Chiefs (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, 4 March v Blues (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Round 3: BYE
Saturday, 19 March v Kings (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, 26 March v Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Friday, 1 April v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Friday, 8 April v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, 15 April v Jaguares (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Sunday, 24 April v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Round 10: BYE
Friday, 6 May v Reds (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, 13 May v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, 20 May v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, 28 May v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, 1 July v Chiefs (ANZ National Stadium, Suva, Fiji)
Saturday, 9 July v Rebels (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, 16 July v Hurricanes (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)

COMMENTS