Rebounding from years of disappointment, the Super Rugby title sits well in Christchurch. And most will see the Crusaders fancied to retain their crown but, they have many challengers in 2018.
That might be the case for any champion side. Every one of them come into a new season with the target firmly in place. And it will take others much to dethrone them.
Crusaders Fancied to Retain Their Crown but Have Many Challengers
The list is not a long one, but it is of concern to Scott Robertson. He begins his second year in charge, thinking of how he can firstly, evade the domestic New Zealand franchise threats–those are quite possibly the toughest of all–and then, whether neighbours or offshore threats can push them to the brink.
Close rivals will be easiest to study, but it is the far distant challengers who are studied more immediately. Their 2017 finals opponent, the Lions primarily. Then the Stormers from Cape Town, the Jaguares from South America and then close neighbours, the New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Brumbies..
Only five foreign teams, but each has the ammunition available to defeat not only the Crusaders, but any side. Any side ‘on their day’ which is always the qualifying statement, and yet each know the Champions are still the benchmark. So to beat them in the regular season [at home or away], might be the motivation that any of the five offshore, or four domestic rivals require.
New Zealand Local Derby Matches the Ultimate Match-up
In one of the most thrilling matches of 2017, the Highlanders visited their northern neighbours. On that day in early June, with the match a dead heat at 22-22, the Crusaders appeared beatable. The visitors only needed to build territorial advantage to either hold-off the home side, or to possibly score themselves. But as any champion side can do, the ‘Saders piled phase-after-phase to position themselves ideally.
It was Mitchell Hunt on this occasion, who snapped the winning drop kick. He was another weapon, on top of young Richie Mo’unga, that built-on the strength of the Christchurch team. First fives have been the keystone, on which most of the winning championships have been made from–now in 2018, sides must destruct the Crusaders from number 10 down.
The Hurricanes managed a sole win last season, while every other side was banished. That means that all four must aim firmly at attacking Mo’unga and his combination with Ryan Crotty, to have any chance of holding back the well drilled ‘red and black’ attack.
Of note, the Auckland Blues seem like one side who could most surprise the Crusaders. Failing to beat the Crusaders since 2014 (35-24) they North Island team will be the most motivated side–if only, for their own redemption–and firmly focused to unsettle the Champions 2018 season.
Offshore Challengers Need to Win Away and at Home
With a single loss to their name in 2017, the Crusaders were near to perfect. A 9.8/10 and to be honest, it will be hard for them to match that achievement. Very difficult for any Super Rugby team to achieve back-to-back title runs though, so the challengers offshore need to win away and at home.
Sides like the Lions are now competent in their ability to do this. However, a change in coaching structure may alter the strong base which Johan Ackerman put in place. Not to say they cannot, but it will tough.
So for a team like the Stormers and Waratahs, who have had failings on-the-road in years past, they need to become experts in accumulating competition points away from home. This means in Week 3 the Stormers have the ‘first shot’ at the title holders in Christchurch. Followed by Waratahs in Week 13.
In fact any team meeting the Crusaders in Canterbury will need to ‘bring their A game’. The Highlanders came close, but all other visitors were repelled in 2017. Fans know this, and it is why most can see the Crusaders fancied to retain their Crown. But their challengers must believe in their own ability to change that understanding. The Rebels defeated the ‘Saders, as have the Sharks and the ‘Canes did so in 2016–so it can be done.
And those sides preparations must begin early.
PreSeason and the Brisbane Global Rugby Tens
For all the Australasian challengers, their first opportunity to ‘test’ the Crusaders, comes on February 9-10. The Brisbane Global Rugby Tens will be a good assessment of fitness, more so than combinations–that is due to All Blacks still being withheld; due to the Players Collective Agreement: article 101.5
So for a team like the Waratahs and Brumbies, they can observe the Crusaders at close-quarters. And motivation for the Australian teams is to repair the pain of 2017–zero wins against any New Zealand teams. So head coaches Daryl Gibson and Stephen Larkim will feel pressure to start off on the right foot, at the Brisbane 10’s.
With the format being much closer to a game of XV’s [than 7’s] the pack have a much better chance to ‘stretch their legs’. And with the pressure on the Crusaders loose forwards, they might be examined the fiercest.
Focus on Preparation: Fear of Injury
But the focus, and fear too of all sides attending the tournament [and every trial game] is that of combinations and injuries. The former is important, with the front row and back row of the Crusaders squad needing to show they have ‘the right stuff’. With Joe Moody possibly included to hasten his 2017 recovery, men like Tim Perry and Andrew Makalio are each bound to be given starts.
As well as other players being used, the combinations of those, and their ability to be used as ‘interchange’ players. That will give intelligence for the Crusaders…and for their challengers too. How a young man like Ethan Blackadder can impact? Or how a senior man like Mike Delaney can offer his valued direction and leadership? Both questions should be noted by all observers.
But the latter is important to. Injuries must be feared; by both champion and challengers. They can occur without warning, so fitness and especially hydration will be high on the list of Robertson and his coaching staffs.
See also: PreSeason Matches Scheduled to Build Confidence
- Friday February 2 – Chiefs v Blues, Rugby Park, Te Kuiti (NZL)
- Friday Feb 2 – Highlanders v Waratahs, Queenstown Recreation Ground
- Saturday Feb 3 – Brumbies vs Rebels, Seiffort Oval, Queanbeyan (ACT)
- Saturday Feb 3 – DHL Stormers v Vodacom Bulls, StubHub Center, Los Angeles
- Thursday Feb 15 – Waratahs vs Melbourne Rebels, Brookvale Oval, Sydney
- Thursday Feb 15 – Highlanders v Crusaders, Fred Booth Park, Waimumu (NZL)
- Thursday Feb 15 – Blues v Hurricanes, Mahurangi Rugby Club, North Auckland
— The Blues (@BluesRugbyTeam) December 13, 2017
All Challengers Must be Ready by February
Not all teams begin the season at the same time. On February 17, just the South African Conference is launched in Week 1. Four of the five teams play, with the Lions hosting the Sharks. The Jaguares make their first long distance flight to the republic, and play their first of two away games. So those two challengers must be ready….and quite possibly, this may be the year when the South American representative team ‘gets it right’.
— Greg Clark (@greg_clarkie) January 2, 2018
In Week 2, all sides begin their campaign proper. The Hurricanes travel to South Africa, and then on to Argentina before they meet the Crusaders at home in Week 4.
That will be the first real test of our theory: (a) with the Crusaders fancied to retain their crown; or (b) that other sides have fashioned a firmer challenge in 2018. It is a long season though. Beginning in February, before the June International window leaving teams in limbo from June 9-29.
Then in late June, three weeks of high intensity matches follow, to prepare sides for the knockout stages. So by this time, the challengers to the Crusaders must have either matched – or bettered – the champions points standings, to hold any chance of containing the other Super Rugby challengers for the title.
But crucially for Last Word on Rugby, when either the five offshore teams, or any of the local derby matches are played, fans attention will be fully focused in 2018.
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