Thursday, February 23, 2012

Blackadder's challenge - regain that top spot Friday Feb 24, 2012

Everything the Crusaders achieved last year will count for little if they don't win this season's Super 15 competition.
Their travels and travails of last year are well documented - they spent all of last season on the road because of the Christchurch earthquake - but ultimately they failed in their goal of winning the final.
The quake occurred in the week after their first game last season - the two-point loss against the Blues after they comfortably led at halftime - and their following match against the Hurricanes (which in all likelihood they would have won) was abandoned and called a 0-0 draw.
But making excuses isn't coach Todd Blackadder's style, and he would have reminded the squad he expects better this year.
His high expectations were quickly rammed home at their temporary training base at Lincoln University.
Blackadder has a saying about how accepting below-par performances on and off the pitch is "condoning mediocrity" and the squad were told they had a chance to do something special, a feat that would never be repeated.
They went so close before falling to the Reds at Suncorp Stadium in the competition showpiece.
Blackadder is also acutely aware that, despite making two semifinals and a final, the Crusaders have not added to their seven titles under his tenure.
The Crusaders face more uncertainty this season. There is no guarantee their new stadium at Addington will be ready in time.
Their first scheduled match there has already been delayed by two weeks to the round five fixture against the Cheetahs and even then they will be cutting it fine - indications are it will be ready just six days beforehand.
They have no marquee signings this season, but that might not be a bad thing. Sonny Bill Williams has moved on to the Chiefs after making a brief splash in Christchurch, and Highlanders lock Tom Donnelly is the only significant newcomer.
Donnelly will fulfil an important role as a replacement for Brad Thorn and has already made his presence felt, according to Blackadder.
Key players Richie McCaw and Dan Carter will ease their way into the season but, again, that might not be a bad thing for the Crusaders.
McCaw has talked of the need for coaches to juggle their talent wisely in the extended competition in which all teams will play each other at least once.
"The 30 or 32 in the squad, they're all going to be involved," McCaw said. "It's not like in the days of the Super 12 when you could pick one game when you gave everyone a rest. You're going to keep rotating that on need, on injury and just where you're at. That's the tough part for the coach, just juggling all of the those things. From our [Crusaders] point of view, we've got good depth. The teams that use that the best are going to be consistent."
The Crusaders' skipper's first game could be against the Bulls in Pretoria in early April. If he plays in that match, he would have missed six of the 18 rounds.
Carter could make his return against the Chiefs in the Crusaders' first 'home' game in Napier in round three.
The Crusaders have plenty of depth at loose forward with Matt Todd, George Whitelock and Kieran Read all experienced players, so the return of McCaw won't be as important as Carter's comeback.
With Matt Berquist moving to Leinster, Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor will vie for the No 10 jersey. Their Super rugby playing experience amounts to zero minutes.
Zac Guildford will add plenty when he returns to the left wing on his comeback from a one-competition match suspension due to his drunken antics in Rarotonga.
The Crusaders will again hope to play a width game in partnership with their excellent forwards Owen and Ben Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock and Donnelly, et al, applying pressure up front.
Blackadder and Crusaders fans will hope it's enough to go one better than last year.
By Patrick McKendry 

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