By MARC HINTON - Rugbyheaven
The Crusade stands at the precipice just four weeks into the new Super 14, with the staggering defending champions discovering they face the next five weeks without the best player in the game.
That was the scenario confirmed on Monday when the Crusaders announced that their All Black skipper Richie McCaw would be sidelined for the next five weeks while he recovers from a medial ligament strain in his right knee.
As is the way with these things, the timing is rotten.
The Crusaders, who not only lost McCaw but a dire match to the Highlanders 0-6 in Dunedin on Saturday night, have now dropped their last three games on the trot to start the new season 1-3.
It's not an unprecedented situation - in 1998 they started in the same fashion and won the competition - but with just eight competition points, they now face a long haul back to the upper echelons they're so familiar with.
They are going to have to start digging their way out of the hole without the hugely influential McCaw as well, a situation that doesn't exactly augur well for the seven-time champions' prospects of doing so.
Plus, McCaw is just the biggest name on a massive injury-list that sees rookie coach Todd Blackadder already digging deep into his largely inexperienced squad.
Already they've lost veteran hooker Corey Flynn for the season, have not had All Black fullback Leon MacDonald on the field since the opening round and have also seen in-form centre Casey Laulala struck down with a shoulder injury.
McCaw won't be back, the Crusaders now say, until April 18 with youngster George Whitelock anointed as his replacement at No 7.
Blackadder said he hoped to have McCaw back in the squad for the three-game trip to South Africa which begins with a match against the Sharks in Durban on April 18 and follows with outings against the Cheetahs in Durban and Lions in Johannesburg.
But in the meantime the Crusaders face a mighty battle if they hope to take their customary place in the competition's top four. Not only do they lose McCaw's peerless play at the breakdown, and round the field, but also his leadership which cannot be over-valued.
The Highlanders match also underlined the barren state of their game at the moment. Not only was the match the lowest scoring encounter there has been in Super rugby, but also the first time the Crusaders have been held scoreless.
"It's never a good time to lose one of the best players in world rugby but it's a good opportunity for George Whitelock to step up," said Blackadder who clearly has his challenges."He played very well against the Brumbies when Richie was ruled out earlier in the season and I'm sure he'll do very well in our next game against the Force at AMI Stadium on Saturday."
McCaw is far from the only casualty either as the Crusaders eye a must-win encounter against John Mitchell's side in the Saturday evening matinee.
Wing Jared Payne suffered a high ankle sprain against the Highlanders and won't be available this week, while Laulala is still out of the frame with the shoulder injury received against the Hurricanes.
There is hope MacDonald, who injured his shoulder in the Crusaders' opening-round victory over the Chiefs, could make a timely return this week, but that won't be confirmed until later.
The wing stock is arguably the Crusaders biggest concern. Kade Poki (ankle) is an "unlikely" starter for the Force and Sean Maitland (hamstring) won't be fit in time either.
Blackadder said the mood in the squad remained good despite the difficult position the Crusaders had found themselves in.
"The attitude among the players in the match against the Highlanders was brilliant," he said."We can't fault their commitment or determination. It's always disappointing to lose but we'll hang in there. We're very close to getting it right."
Halfback Andy Ellis said the Crusaders simply had to respond to the loss of McCaw. They had no choice, he shrugged.
"It makes it tough eh," he said. "But for some of those next-tier guys it is time to stand up now and really be accounted for. Every time we pull the Crusaders jersey on we talk about fulfilling the jersey. It's time everyone makes sure they do that. The guys with the next level of experience really have to take that on board and try and lead from the front."
Ellis said the Crusaders had to also find a ray of light amid all the gloom.
"There's a real challenge for us now," he said. "It's sort of an exciting challenge -- one we haven't come up against in a wee while and something we're looking forward to."
Meanwhile, injured hooker Flynn could be back on the rugby field by this year's Air NZ Cup, Crusaders officials have confirmed.
Flynn re-broke his left arm in the round two defeat by the Brumbies in Canberra, but he is on course for a return to action for the provincial competition.