With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Crusaders.
Close but no cigar for the men from Christchurch in 2014 but they seemed to have found their Super Rugby mojo once again, which is a warning side for their rivals heading into the new season. They will be there or thereabouts come play-off time.
Last year: Seconds away from an eighth Super Rugby title but unfortunately for the Crusaders, fly-half Bernard Foley landed an 80th minute penalty goal for the Waratahs as the Australians won at ANZ Stadium. It was an improvement on 2013 as they finished up second in the overall standings and went one better in the knockout stages, but that won’t take away the pain of that final defeat in Sydney as they came so close to getting their hands back on the silverware. They were without pivot Dan Carter for a large chunk of the early season due to his sabbatical but Colin Slade performed well in his place while there was a star born on the wing as Nemani Nadolo devastated defences during 2014. His 12 tries saw him finish level with Israel Folau while Israel Dagg was back in good form. Other players who stepped up outside the usual personnel were tighthead Nepo Laulala, flanker Jordan Taufua and wing Kieron Fonotia as the Crusaders showed their mettle once again.
This year: They simply must improve on last season’s two wins from their opening five games if they are to avoid having to chase the pace-setters in 2015. One wonders how their All Blacks will be managed this year, which is another factor to process when looking ahead to their chances. However there will have been a lot of confidence taken from 2014 and in Nadolo they have a priceless strike weapon that has given them something they haven’t had for a while. Going out the door are experienced campaigners Corey Flynn, George Whitelock and Zac Guildford but Ged Robinson makes it three impressive hookers while they are well stocked in the back-row so there’s no concerns over personnel at the Crusaders HQ. That possible slow start simply must be avoided though as they begin with three key games, at home to the Rebels before going to the Highlanders and Chiefs, Furthermore they travel to the Bulls, Sharks and Lions, which are tough propositions so a tough campaign awaits.
Key players: It is difficult not to mention Richie McCaw and Kieron Read in the same breath when discussing the Crusaders and it is for that reason this duo will once again be influential to their season. Dan Carter could well be utilised a lot more at inside centre than at number ten this year while an injury to Willi Heinz means greater importance falls on the form of scrum-half Andy Ellis in his absence. He must be consistent week in week out and if he is, who is to say he can’t sneak into the World Cup reckoning due to Tawera Kerr-Barlow being out.
Players to watch: As mentioned, Ellis will be key at the base but along with Nadolo, this duo miss the opening rounds due to their commitments in Japan’s Top League. Mitchell Drummond must therefore perform in the early weeks and we will also be keeping a close eye on flanker Matt Todd, prop Nepo Laulala and the returning Robbie Fruean, who is given another chance by the Crusaders after the Chiefs let him go. Once all their star players are back in harness, it’s tough not to look beyond Read and Carter while Colin Slade had a great end of 2014.
Prospects: We expect a now customery sluggish start from the Crusaders, if we are to read into their pre-season form. But once they have their stars back firing, few franchises will be able to live with them. Blackadder is fortunate to have four world class props at his disposal while two up-and-coming hookers are set for big years. The back-row and three quarter line class speaks for itself so if Carter sparks with Ryan Crotty and Dagg and Nadolo back up 2014’s form, we should expect to see the Crusaders in the play-offs and at least in the semis.
Ins and outs:
In: Ged Robinson (Highlanders), Robbie Fruean (Chiefs), Jone Macilai (Northland)
Out: Daniel Lienert-Brown (released), Corey Flynn (Toulouse), George Whitelock (Panasonic Wild Knights), Tyler Bleyendaal (Munster), Rey Lee-Lo (Hurricanes), Rob Thompson (released), Adam Whitelock (Bayonne), Zac Guildford (Clermont).
Fri, 13 Feb v Rebels (Christchurch)
Sat, 21 Feb v Highlanders (Dunedin)
Sat, 28 Feb v Chiefs (Hamilton)
Round 4 (Bye)
Sat, 14 Mar v Lions (Christchurch)
Sat, 21 Mar v Cheetahs (Christchurch)
Sat, 28 Mar v Bulls (Pretoria)
Sat, 4 Apr v Sharks (Durban)
Sat, 11 Apr v Highlanders (Christchurch)
Fri, 17 Apr v Chiefs (Christchurch)
Sat, 25 Apr v Lions (Johannesburg)
Sat, 2 May v Hurricanes (Wellington)
Fri, 8 May v Reds (Christchurch)
Round 14 (Bye)
Sat, 23 May v Waratahs (Sydney)
Fri, 29 May v Hurricanes (TBC)
Sat, 6 Jun v Blues (Auckland)
Sat, 13 Jun v Brumbies (Canberra)