By MARC HINTON - Stuff.co.nz
The Crusaders have been issued a timely reminder of the importance of a fast start as they get set for what should be an explosive opening to the new season against the Highlanders at AMI Stadium on Saturday night.
Skipper Richie McCaw, who's sitting out at least the opening fortnight of the new season as he completes an extended off-season break, has urged his team-mates to keep their eye on the ball as they launch a campaign aimed very much about retribution in Title Town.
The Crusaders are coming off a season that, by their own high standards, was short of the mark. They finished the 2009 round-robin in fourth spot and were eliminated 36-23 by the Bulls in a semifinal in Pretoria.
The achievement continued a remarkable record by the Crusaders of having made the semifinals every year but one (2001) since their 1998 breakthrough. During that time they've claimed seven titles, been runnerup twice and have been a beaten semifinalist twice.
By anyone's definition that's a dazzling record of consistency that may well never be matched. But they set the bar high in Crusader country and McCaw conceded the motivation was high to at least get themselves back in the deciding game this year.
"That's why you play the regular season isn't it, to have a crack at that (final)," said McCaw who's made a belated start to his preparations. "You don't play the season to get second or third, you go to win it and that's always been the attitude.
"The first thing is to get yourself in that position, so you have to start the season off pretty well and get those weeks right. Otherwise you are chasing all the way."
That was very much the situation the Crusaders found themselves in last year as they dropped three of their first four matches (including a bizarre 6-0 defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin) and relied on a strong finish just to sneak into the playoff picture.
McCaw felt the Crusaders paid the price for losing too many close matches when they were handed a testing semifinal assignment in Pretoria, and he hoped that was a lesson that had been heeded for this year.
"Last year we got close in a lot of games and didn't quite get there," lamented the skipper. "We improved from that and got to the point where we did win some of those games but you can't afford to have to travel to South Africa for a semifinal. That's tough.
"If we can nail those close opportunities they can be quite significant at the end."
There's certainly a strong vibe that the Crusaders have upgraded significantly for 2010's final season of Super 14 rugby.
Dan Carter's back for starters, and they've also picked up a couple of classy young backs in All Black Zac Guildford and Wellington midfielder Robert Fruean. Chris Jack's also returned to boost an already world-class second row, with McCaw rating his old test mate a key addition as he looks to make one last tilt at the black jersey.
Plus there's a swag of Crusaders who are very much in the "good and getting better" category. Men like the Franks brothers, Wyatt Crockett, Isaac Ross, Kieran Read, Thomas Waldrom, Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty and Colin Slade are all on the rise in the New Zealand game.
Round them off with a "veteran" contingent headed by McCaw and also including Brad Thorn, Corey Flynn (injured for the early rounds), Carter and Andy Ellis and you have a sound mix, with the bases pretty well covered.
"I think we've got a stronger group than we had last year," noted McCaw. "A lot of the guys are the same but they have been through that experience.
"Then we have a guy like Zac Guildford who comes in, and Robbie Fruean, and they have got some real potential and will add a fair bit to the team. It's going to be quite exciting."
McCaw's reminded that the bloke in the No 10 jersey was also back after his ill-fated French sabbatical.
"Dan Carter is a big part of it too," nods the skip. "He's excited, having been out for a year. From our point of view we have to allow him to do what he can do by winning the battle up front.
"I think we have good personnel up front. There is a good competition for places and that provides depth with injuries and keeping guys fresh. From where we are at the minute, we're pretty happy."
At this stage McCaw's aiming to re-enter the fray in either round three or four, depending on injuries and form through the opening couple of rounds.
Combine that with the absence early on of Flynn and Jack as they get over knocks, and there's a distinct feeling that if the Crusaders are vulnerable this year, it could be in the opening rounds.
Thus McCaw's words of warning.
He's also aware that the Highlanders will come north for Saturday's opener not exactly short of confidence, having rolled the Crusaders their last two meetings and pretty keen to make it a hat-trick to launch their own campaign in style.
McCaw is also hopeful that the turnstiles will tick over a lot more at AMI Stadium than they did in 2009.
"There is a bit of a positive feel about, especially with the way the Air NZ Cup was last year, and perhaps that last test match we played left people with a pretty good feeling. AMI Stadium is finished now, and people have got the familiar side of the ground back, so hopefully they'll want to come and watch."
The Crusaders-Highlanders match, kicking off at 7.35pm on Saturday, is the second half of a Kiwi "derby" double-header. The Blues launch the new season a night earlier at North Harbour Stadium when they host the Hurricanes.