James Mortimer - (6/01/2011)
It is a remarkable statistic to think that if the Crusaders do not win their eighth Super Rugby crown this season it will constitute their longest drought without claiming the championship.
With seven titles to their name in 15 years, the most successful franchise in the competition’s history has never gone more than two years without winning the title.
Indeed, the greatest dynasty in Super Rugby has of late been usurped by the Bulls, who have not only won three of the last four titles, but on all occasions the South Africans have claimed the title, they have beaten the Crusaders in the semi finals.
However there has been a feeling in ‘title town’ that the Crusaders have not been quite the imposing machine that has seen them win almost half of the titles on offer in Super Rugby.
But history has proven that the red and blacks never lie dormant for long, and with Canterbury proving their status as the strongest province in New Zealand rugby, one feels that the Crusaders could make a statement this year.
Especially with far more derby matches in the revamped Super Rugby format.On paper the Crusaders squad is typically strong, yet while they have their usual collection of All Blacks, there more menace to even their elite contingent.
Richie McCaw will begin the season with his reputation as one of the great captains the game has ever seen confirmed after a landmark season in 2010. He is also the senior Crusader with 103 caps.
Dan Carter will begin the season not only the Super Rugby point’s record holder, but also as test rugby’s all time highest point’s scorer.Both men will be crucial to the Crusaders campaign, but as was seen with the All Blacks last season, they are not the only two kingpins in the squad.
Kieran Read will enter the campaign a player whose status is beginning to rival that of his partner in the flank and the nation’s premier first five-eighth. The New Zealand player of the year is generally regarded as the best number eight globally, and will be crucial to the Crusaders hopes.
The list continues with ageless workhorse Brad Thorn, one of the top locks in world rugby last year, who gets better with age.Supporting the senior players are rising All Blacks Sam Whitelock and Ben and Owen Franks.Veterans such as Chris Jack, who will likely become a Crusaders centurion (with 98 caps), Andy Ellis and Corey Flynn will also play their parts.
The enviable squad list is bolstered with two new additions, and two more All Blacks – bring their international contingent to 12 players – in Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Dagg.Both players, likely to play key roles in Graham Henry's selections this year, add considerably to the Crusaders backline arsenal, and to a team that could at full strength field a pack with past or present All Blacks from 1 to 8.
But the Crusaders strength is not only present with their test players, but also in their production line. Scrumhalf Willi Heinz, prop Andrew Olorenshaw, lock Joe Wheeler, hooker Quentin MacDonald and flanker Matt Todd were in the Crusaders wider training group last season and have made the step up to the full squad for 2011.
And finally the lure of the region is as strong as always, with first-five Matt Berquist and hooker David Hall (from the Highlanders) new additions.
While new Super Rugby players come in the form of Tasman five-eighth Tom Marshall, Southland prop Nick Barrett, Canterbury lock Luke Romano and Canterbury Colt and New Zealand Under-19 captain Tyler Bleyendaal.
Todd Blackadder will commence his third season as coach, and would dearly love to win a Super Rugby title, with the last crown coming in 2008 under Robbie Deans (who has won a record five championships).
His new forwards coach will be Dave Hewett, former manager of the Canterbury team last year, taking over from Mark Hammett who moves to take charge of the Hurricanes.
The Crusaders will play the Queensland Reds (Jan 29 in Cairns), the Melbourne Rebels (Feb 5 at AAMI Park) and the Highlanders (Feb 11 in Oamaru) as part of their pre-season programme.
They will kick off their regular season with two blockbuster derby matches, against the Blues and the Hurricanes, both away from home. They return home to host the Waratahs and Brumbies.
They will take their first bye in week seven.
Roll of honour: Champions 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, Finalists 2003, 2004, only three times in 15 years haven’t reached the top four
Last season: 4th (8 wins, 1 draw, 4 losses)
In 2010: second best attack, fourth best defence
Notable results: home team firstCrusaders 35 – 6 Sharks (round three)
Western Force 24 – 16 Crusaders (round eleven)
Crusaders 40 – 22 Brumbies (round fourteen)
Fullbacks: Israel Dagg
Wingers: Zac Guildford, Sean Maitland, Adam Whitelock
Midfield: Ryan Crotty, Robbie Fruean, Tom Marshall, Sonny Bill Williams
First five-eigths: Matt Berquist, Tyler Bleyendaal, Daniel Carter
Halfbacks: Andy Ellis, Kahn Fotuali'i, Willi Heinz
Loose forwards: Richie McCaw, Jonathan Poff, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, George Whitelock
Locks: Chris Jack, Luke Romano, Brad Thorn, Joe Wheeler, Sam WhitelockProps: Nicholas Barrett, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Andrew Olorenshaw
Hookers: Corey Flynn, David Hall, Quentin MacDonald