Winning the last seven games in a row is a pretty special accomplishment. While not in the realms of the NBL Golden State Warriors; a completely different sport mind you but a side with a similar ‘winning mentality’ that has existed in Crusaders Super Rugby culture for many years. In 2016, something has ‘flicked the switch’ with the Crusaders on a roll. We look at their squad and the next phase in this franchises ultimate goal. Another championship.
Crusaders on a roll in Super Rugby 2016
This hot form is more astonishing when you think how fewer rugby teams achieve those long sequences of wins in the modern era. Last year, the Hurricanes had a brilliant run until they were outdone by the Waratahs [nine matches unbeaten] The All Blacks amounted 17 wins before a draw in Brisbane put a halt to that drive for a new world record. Over the years, successful periods of winning have identified the contenders on most occasions, so Crusaders fans will be enjoying this much more than previous ‘up-and-down’ performances, a period of consistency is just what the core supporters have asked for.
Anyone outside of the Mainland (the South Island) will have different ideas of how passionate rugby fans are. With that diehard-grassroots level of support, to see their team performing so well will be pleasing for them.
Patient too. A number of years since the last of the Crusaders seven championships, the wait has been rather tiring for a few. Loyal fans aside, many have been upset at this famine, calling for change at the top so it will hearten many that this team is having such a successful year. On par with their 2008 triumphant season, where under Robbie Deans they reached the goal of claiming a title. Good times, of course this is a different team under a different coach, and it is not a guarantee. Nothing has been claimed yet but the first ten rounds have gone a long way to re-engaging the Crusader fanbase and the fans will be out in force on Friday night, knowing their side are ‘on a roll’.
Friday begins this next important phase of games before the International Test match window [11 June to 25 June] is so important toward the teams short-term goal. How will the Crusaders end their next four games? They are currently in a winning fashion yes, these next four games will surely keep them lifted and inspired to continue the high performance levels. With all players are headed towards a single dream at the start of the year, so the break was not as significant as their detractors might imagine.
And it is also impressive because of the number of players exiting the side last year–McCaw, Carter, Heinz, Slater, Taylor and Bleyendaal. Add to that coach Todd Blackadder deciding that this is his final term. Impressive due to how the squad has drawn strength from each other, exhibited best when captain Kieran Read returned early from his All Blacks leave to rejoin his mates. That commitment is infectious and while Sam Whitelock was entrusted to guide the team in the early stages, some new players have put their hands up in 2016.
Scott Barrett, younger brother of Kane and Beauden has shown a great command of his role when given the opportunity. When starting against the Lions, he stole the very first offensive ruck and that led to the first of Ryan Crotty’s handful of tries. He has linked well with both Whitelock and Romano, and may only get better from here.
In the pack, young talent mixes beside established talent. Rising players like Codie Taylor have gone from ‘red and black’ to wearing All Black, and the side has a way of developing and nurturing talent. Michael Alaalatoa has re-signed with the team for another two years and he will benefit from working with men like Joe Moody, Owne Franks and the ever-young Wyatt Crockett.
Finding new blood to mix into the Crusaders knowledge bank has been a great feat. Blackadder, assistant coaches Dave Hewitt and Tabai Matson have brought in men to not only fill the gaps but who will be with this franchise longterm. Mitchell Drummond is maturing into his role; selected ahead of Andy Ellis against the Reds, along with Richie Mounga, the newblood have improved over the first half of the season. With Ben Volavola ready and able to also demonstrate his ability, these men will only improve more when they play beside the likes of Read, Fonotia and of course, Israel Dagg.
While not the instigator of this successful series of results, Dagg is the link in sides that have won on the biggest stage. Back to fitness, and with that all too familiar cheeky grin that is very much like Damian McKenzie’s pre-kick smirk. A player who enjoys the challenge, he will miss big Nemani Nadolo [suspended] but will work well with David Havilli and one of the best Crusaders in 2016, Johnny McNicholl (pictured) They enjoy playing together, are a band of brothers and are growing as a group every game. The next four games will go a long way towards judging how they end the regular season.
In terms of points on offer, twenty competition points is available, and you would believe they could claim 8-12 points at least. Now obviously, that might be putting huge pressure on the side. Fans would have you believe there are three full ‘maximums’ up for grabs but let’s be realistic. Not an expectation but LWOS would be satisfied with (a) a bonus point win at home facing the Reds [no disrespect] (b) that they gain some solid points in Sydney and honestly (c) they should outlast an exhausted Blues side returning from Africa via Perth. Plus, Nemani will be free to play that match, so 80 minutes of “lets pass it to Nemzy!” might be a great plan.
Against the Highlanders in Round 12 though…that is the definitely biggest hurdle in this series. They refer to it as the ‘Battle of the Mainland’ and with it being just the single clash this season, it is a winner takes all in 2016 and the Landers hold an advantage from last years encounter. The Crusaders can claim this game if they attack and take advantage of the conditions. Under the roof of Forsyth-Barr Stadium, the opportunities are endless. A well engineered backline could be within their element, just as long as they are considerate of the strong Highlanders attack.
It is an age old argument–first you must defend well, to have any opportunity to attack— that is still true in 2016. The ball is not always presented to you on a plate (although Aaron Smith can provide clean ball that looks like it is) the pressure is squarely on Kieran Read to lead from the front. He is a master of his trade, a former World Rugby player of the year, so against the visiting Reds, Read will be the catalyst for an organised defence and to boost his men by example.
With so many player match-ups, their confidence levels will be an underlying factor that covers this phase of the year. Can the Crusaders management motivate this whole group? That has been a question for approximately four years now. Ever since they were denied at Suncorp Stadium in the Grand Final that is. Being ‘out passioned’ by the homeside after such a well-traveled campaign, it was a game lost after the ‘season from hell’. This season however, looks to have been the most well prepared and implemented since 2008.
The mind game is now pivotal in modern sports; a whole separate feature actually. Psychology and Super Rugby now play integral roles in preseason and during the competition. Getting teams to be ‘up’ for a match used to be about simply winning (which the team are) but today the entire group plays it’s part and with the Crusaders on a roll, maintaining that state is mind goes a long way to success. If the Crusaders conquer that aspect of the game, these next four games will fall into line like the last ones have ‘if’ the side are concentrated on each of the four games. Not all four at once, that is the key. One game at a time.
Basic stuff really, and truthfully, Blackadder revels in that and commented this week that they had taken on board some advice from Australian Rugby League super-coach Wayne Bennett. “Something that we took out of [meeting] Wayne Bennett as coaches was he said ‘just focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t do’. I think thats been really good for us as coaches”. Taking on new philosophies is something that all squads do today, and the mentality of focusing on what they can achieve together is one of the basics that is impressive in 2016. Plus the fact that Blackadder made sure that the team would not be distracted, as they seem to have been in past seasons.
Placed second within (admittedly) the toughest conference is a great position to be in at this stage of the season (no wonder Blackadder is smiling) Knowing they will do the basics first is comforting for Crusaders fans. Friday night will see the proof in that philosophy as this side look to reach that elusive goal in 2016.
The Crusaders play the Queensland Reds at AMI Stadium on Friday 6th May at 7:35pm (NZT)
“Main photo credit”