Ahead of the 2017 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating. Next up, the Crusaders.
It’s a new era in Christchurch as Todd Blackadder is now with Bath, so up steps Scott Robertson as the Crusaders hunt title number eight.
They have also lost one of their stars of recent seasons, Nemani Nadolo, which leaves a sizeable hole in their backline for this season Robertson though enters fresh on the back of Mitre 10 Cup glory with Canterbury and is a promising coach who could take them a long way.
Last year: All of the talk heading into 2016 was how the Crusaders would cope following the retirement of Richie McCaw and departure of playmakers Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor. Well, it didn’t seem to be a big issue as they won 11 out of 15 regular-season games.
Richie Mo’unga showed he is the long-term future at AMI Stadium with many dazzling displays at fly-half while others making a name for themself were Scott Barrett and Mitchell Drummond. Perhaps though the biggest story was the return to form of full-back Israel Dagg, as excellent showings saw him enjoy an outstanding 2016 for both franchise and country. His linking with Nadolo and Johnny McNicholl kept oppositions guessing while up front, to a man, everyone had stellar years. Jordan Taufua in particular was a workhorse in red and black.
The Crusaders’ season would be ended by the Lions though at the quarter-final stage as they met a side in a rich vein of form in Jo’burg. Blackadder’s men could not recover following an impressive start to the game from the Lions but take nothing away from a decent campaign from the men from Christchurch who, despite being in transition, finished fourth in New Zealand’s Conference, three points off top spot.
This year: Like last year they must regroup following big-name departures, with Nadolo, McNicholl, Kieron Fonotia and Andy Ellis just some of the players who have moved on. Nadolo is going to be extremely difficult to replace as he is a unique talent and will be sorely missed.
However, looking through their squad it is hard not to be impressed by the talent still available. Their props, hookers and locks are all top of the range while a back row of Taufua, Matt Todd and Kieran Read is up there with the best in Super Rugby. Drummond and Mo’unga as their half-back combination excites while the midfield of Ryan Crotty and new signing Seta Tamanivalu looks good, with Jack Goodhue and David Havili more than able back-ups. Expect Dagg to shine again while 2017 offers a big chance for wings Digby Ioane and George Bridge.
Getting out of the Conference is once again a tricky proposition as the Hurricanes look favourites to top the pile. It will therefore be the Crusaders, Highlanders, Chiefs and Blues fighting for what could again be the remaining three places in the knockouts and we get the feeling new ideas from coach Robertson could be just what this side needs. Dark horses if they can keep Mo’unga and their All Blacks fit.
Key players: A lot will rest on the form of fly-half Richie Mo’unga and number eight Kieran Read while centre Ryan Crotty is also a key player in their leadership group.
If Mo’unga can build on last year and form a strong partnership with Mitchell Drummond, the Crusaders will be a major threat this year. They have so much strength in their pack, with a lovely blend of experience and youth that will shine.
Players to watch: Keep an eye on second-row Scott Barrett and blindside flanker Jordan Taufua, who were outstanding in 2016. We’re also intrigued to see how Digby Ioane goes on his return to Super Rugby, with Mitre 10 Cup star George Bridge set to push him for game-time.
Israel Dagg, fresh from a new deal, will also be a player to monitor ahead of the Lions series, with Seta Tamanivalu a serious signing.
Prospects: As mentioned, the Super Rugby format makes it difficult for them to make the knockouts, with all the New Zealand outfits this season having cases for progressing. We see the Crusaders again getting into the last eight but from there it’s all dependant on the draw.
Players in: Oliver Jager (Canterbury), Andrew Makalio (Tasman), Quinten Strange (Tasman), Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Manawatu), Bryn Hall (Blues), Tim Bateman (Coca-Cola Red Sparks), Seta Tamanivalu (Chiefs), George Bridge (Canterbury), Digby Ioane (Honda Heat), Manasa Mataele (Taranaki)
Players out: Alex Hodgman (Blues), Ged Robinson (retired), Jimmy Tupou (Blues), Tim Boys (Southland), Reed Prinsep (Hurricanes), Andy Ellis (Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers), Ben Volavola (Rebels), Kieron Fonotia (Ospreys), Robbie Fruean (Bath), Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets), Nemani Nadolo (Montpellier)
Saturday, February 25 v Brumbies (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, March 4 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, March 11 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Friday, March 17 v Blues (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, March 24 v Force (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Sunday, April 2 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Round 7: BYE
Friday, April 14 v Sunwolves (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, April 22 v Stormers (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, April 29 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, May 6 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 13 v Hurricanes (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, May 19 v Chiefs (ANZ National Stadium, Suva)
Saturday, May 27 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, June 3 v Highlanders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Round 16: BYE
Saturday, July 15 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium)