Bowed but unbroken by their 81st minute 2014 Grand Final loss, Todd Blackadder’s Crusaders are back in the saddle for another crack at the eighth title that has eluded them since they last won in 2008.
The big news from the off-season is the return of Robbie Fruean from the Chiefs. He missed most of the last Super Rugby season with a recurrence of his heart problems, but looked sharp for Hawkes Bay in the ITM Cup. The Crusaders will be looking to him to form a midfield partnership with Ryan Crotty that allows them to get full value from the power of Nemani Nadolo, the guile of Israel Dagg, and the pace of rookie Northland flyer Jone Macilai out wide.
Robbie Fruean – returns to the Crusaders
Not returning are Tyler Blyendaal (Munster), Corey Flynn (Toulouse), Zac Guildford (Clermont), Rey Lee-Lo (Hurricanes), and Whitelock brothers Adam (Bayonne) and George (Panasonic Wild Knights).
Also new to the squad are Scott Barrett, brother of Beauden and a recent NZ Under 20’s rep, and journeyman hooker Ged Robinson, previously a Highlander, Rebel and Hurricane. Kieron Fonotia and Nafi Tuitavake have been promoted from the 2014 Wider Training Squad to complete the roster:
Props: Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Tim Perry.
Hookers: Ben Funnell, Ged Robinson, Codie Taylor.
Locks: Scott Barrett, Dominic Bird, Luke Romano, Jimmy Tupou, Sam Whitelock.
Loose forwards: Richie McCaw, Kieran Read (captain), Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Luke Whitelock.
Half-backs: Mitchell Drummond, Andy Ellis, one to be confirmed: see below.
Five-eighths: Dan Carter, Colin Slade, Tom Taylor.
Midfield backs: Ryan Crotty, Kieron Fonotia, Robbie Fruean.
Outside backs: Israel Dagg, Jone Macilai, Johnny McNicholl, Nemani Nadolo, Nafi Tuitavake.
Willi Heinz – broke his leg in first trial
Halfback Willi Heinz broke his leg in the pre-season loss to the Highlanders and will likely be replaced by Wider Training Squad member Billy Guyton, but this has yet to be confirmed. Macilai fractured his arm in the same match but at the time of writing there was no indication as to how long he’ll be out of action.
Forwards: 1. Wyatt Crockett, 2. Codie Taylor, 3. Owen Franks, 4. Luke Romano, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. Jordan Taufua, 7. Richie McCaw, 8. Kieran Read.
Backs: 9. Andy Ellis, 10. Dan Carter, 11. Nemani Nadolo, 12. Ryan Crotty, 13. Robbie Fruean, 14. Jone Macilai, 15. Israel Dagg
The Crusaders’ greatest strength is their pack, with six All Blacks in the best starting eight and three more on the bench, ably supported by plenty of young talent on the way up. The glaring potential weakness is the lack of midfield depth: losing either Crotty or Fruean for an extended period could well result in a repeat of last years mid-season problem turning possession into points in general and tries in particular.
Even with the loss of Heinz that’s a formidable squad, particularly in the forwards. but Japanese Top League commitments, the realities of NZRU central contracts and player welfare protocols, and the requirements of the All Blacks in a World Cup year, mean that even without further injuries their optimum 23 will seldom be fielded.
Both Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock have exercised their right to a mini sabbatical and won’t return until round 5 (Matt Todd will captain the side in Read’s absence, which may be a hint as to the level of Richie McCaw’s early season involvement), while Nadolo and Ellis are still in Japan and may not play until March.
NZRU have also instructed the franchises that every All Black is to be given two weeks leave during the season. With ten All Blacks in the squad (excluding Read and Whitelock) that’s going to require quite some juggling act.
One also suspects that at some point All Black coach Steve Hansen will decide that some or all of his aging rock stars (Carter and McCaw) and nailed-on starters (Read, Whitelock, Franks and Crockett) can no longer be risked week-in, week-out. The timing and make-up of the All Black World Cup training camps, and for the squad that goes to Samoa in July, will also come into play. Fantasy Rugby devotees, consider yourselves warned!
Aging star Dan Carter – cannot be risked week-in, week-out
There being no June test window, the timing of the bye rounds will also be key. Their second bye falling in week 14 leaves them a four-week run into the finals – long enough to build momentum, but not so long that player fatigue or loss of focus should become issues – albeit that three of those four games are away, including the Waratahs in round 15.
Their first bye, however, falls in week four and it’s the nine match slog between byes that will determine whether come Grand Final night the they’re at the after-match drinking boutique beer and knocking back lobster tails, or watched it at home with some mates, a carton of Canterbury Draught and the tray of party pies the missus put in the oven before heading off for one last WAGS night out.
The upsides are that six of the nine matches are at home, including against likely stragglers the Lions and Cheetahs (and, dare I say it, Reds); their South Africa trip doesn’t include the always difficult stopover in Perth; and the Crusaders’ record in Pretoria and Durban is the best of any Australasian team.
Kieran Read at Loftus – Crusaders have a good record in Pretoria
All things considered, it’s probably as good a draw as a New Zealand team can expect:
Round 1 Rebels at home
Round 2 Highlanders away
Round 3 Chiefs away
Round 4 Bye
Round 5 Lions at home
Round 6 Cheetahs at home
Round 7 Bulls away
Round 8 Sharks away
Round 9 Highlanders at home
Round 10 Chiefs at home
Round 11 Blues at home
Round 12 Hurricanes away
Round 13 Reds at home
Round 14 Bye
Round 15 Waratahs away
Round 16 Hurricanes at home
Round 17 Blues away
Round 18 Brumbies away
Since the introduction of conferences three of the four title winners finished top of the regular-season points table and the other second. Chances are, therefore, that if you want to be crowned champion you must not only win your conference, but also finish ahead of one or both of the other conference winners.
Last year the Crusaders recovered from a poor start (losing three of their first five matches and prompting a member of this website, myself in fact, to post the question whether it was too soon for coach Todd Blackadder to be given the flick) to win their conference comfortably enough (51 points and 11 wins to the Chiefs’ 44 and eight plus two draws), but only beat the Sharks for overall second place by a single table point.
Another poor start could be fatal to their chances, and while 41 tries and four four-try bonus points were just enough last year they could easily have been left ruing the five occasions on which three tries were scored. The aim must be to score often against all-comers, and win big against the minnows in case it comes down to points difference again.
A 14th straight play-off spot looks probable but can they win the NZ conference and bag that elusive eighth title? Of course they can: they’re the Crusaders, the most successful Super Rugby team of them all. WILL they do it? I have no clue but it’s gonna be a hell of a ride so strap yourself in and let’s find out.
Season starts February 13. BRING—IT—ON.
Crusaders – finalists last year