Wednesday, May 16, 2012

These are trying times for the Crusaders TONY SMITH 16/05/2012

The dormant Crusaders simply must grab a four-try bonus point against the beleaguered Blues on Saturday to reignite their anaemic attack.

Coaches Todd Blackadder and Daryl Gibson have, arguably, the most gifted backline in the Super 15. Their side is stacked with World Cup champion All Blacks. Yet, in 11 games this season, the Crusaders have scored just 23 tries – compared with 40 at the same juncture last year.

It's always difficult comparing campaigns in rugby because of personnel and rule interpretation changes and subsequent tactical tweaking.

But, that caveat aside, at this point last year, the Crusaders had scored 40 tries in 11 matches for a total of 323 points for and 212 against. They had racked up five four-try bonus points.

In a heady three-game streak, they notched six tries against the Brumbies, six more against the Highlanders and five in their Twickenham triumph against the Sharks.

They later managed four tries against the Chiefs and five against the Western Force before the blitz slowed after serious injuries to top finishers Sean Maitland and Israel Dagg. Yet Maitland still finished equal top-try scorer in the 2011 Super 15 with nine touchdowns. Dagg supplied seven and Robbie Fruean six.

Don't forget, too, that the Crusaders spent all of last season on the road, playing away from their spiritual home in earthquake-ravaged Christchurch.

Now they have a spanking new stadium and play home games before sellout crowds. Yet, in 2012, the Crusaders have crossed the chalk 23 times in 11 games and have scored just one try in their last two matches. They have scored 287 points and conceded 245.

The Addington Stadium faithful have seen just five tries in three games – three of them against the Cheetahs. That's the sort of statistic that would leave British scribes like Stephen Jones salivating but is tantamount to a drought in Super Rugby circles.

The Crusaders have just two four-try bonus points in 2012 – achieved in back-to-back wins over the Hurricanes and Waratahs when they scored five and four tries, respectively.

It looked then that the floodgates had opened. Finally. But somehow they've since contrived to turn off the locks at the canal stocks. Only Fruean – who has already equalled his 2011 season tally with six tries – can be content with his strike rate to date.

Are the Crusaders stars living off past glories or believing their own publicity?

Or is it simply a case of being caught napping by two of the canniest defensive strategists in the competition – Reds supremo Ewen McKenzie and Rebels' defensive guru John Muggleton?

The seven-time champions certainly still reap respect from their rivals. But do the Crusaders still engender the same fear?

No-one is more frustrated at the Crusaders' lack of finish than backs coach Daryl Gibson, though he insists their attacking systems are still sound and there's no need to push the panic button.

But the ex-All Black midfielder concedes the Crusaders have "probably done a full circle around our attack".

"We started off with quite expansive ideas but as the season's progressed and trends have become apparent, we've tightened up a little.

"The game, we've realised over the last few weeks, is a really simple one and the principles are the same. You've got to win your set-piece ball and get some go-forward. We haven't been doing that very well and haven't been hanging on to the ball so tries have been hard to come by."

The Crusaders' scrum and lineout were flawless against the Rebels after letting their standards slip in the streaky try-less win over the Reds.

But they have been bashed at the breakdown in the last two games with the capitulation in Melbourne eerily reminiscent of last year's loss to the Highlanders in Nelson.

The Crusaders rested key players against the Rebels yet the replacements could not be blamed. Backs Willi Heinz and Tom Marshall were more enthusiastic than most.

So, what has changed in the Crusaders' psyche?

Gibson admits they have been kicking the ball more in 2012 to make territorial gains.

"Strategically, we have modified what we do in our area. Previously, we've run a lot more than what we're doing at the moment. So, we're working out ways of trying to get a good balance between kicking and running."

The Crusaders set out their stall from the Cheetahs game when they paired Tom Taylor and Dan Carter in the five-eighths roles to give them left-right kicking options at the expense of a ball-running second five in Ryan Crotty.

It's worked to a large extent. Taylor has made a solid Super 15 start and his goal kicking strike-rate is about 90 per cent. Carter looked to be back to his best with some sniping runs against the Reds, but was uncharacteristically anonymous in Melbourne.

Taylor was replaced after 58 minutes as a precautionary measure after experiencing tightness in his right thigh. If he's fit for the Blues game, it may be time for he and Carter to reverse roles. Taylor could take the 12 jersey and the All Blacks maestro put back in the pivot position or a Carter-Crotty combo could be tried if Carter is ready to resume full goal-kicking duties.

But, it's further out where the Crusaders need their finishers firing.

Fruean is a ferocious threat but he can't do it alone and needs to work on shifting the ball to the back three.

Gibson agrees the Crusaders have probably missed Sonny Bill Williams, who is carving up at the Chiefs. Williams scored just four tries in Crusaders colours but he attracted defenders like moths to a flame and created oodles of openings for his outsides.

Another key ingredient in the Crusaders' offensive recipe has been in short supply this season.

Gibson says the Crusaders "used to, in the last three years, score a lot of tries from turnover ball". His charges are playing a more structured style this year and he says "the way the law's being refereed" has made turnover ball harder to get.

"We're doing really well in that department and we're getting the ball off kicks and such, but certainly nowhere near the strike rate that we've had in previous seasons."

Back-three men Maitland, Dagg and Zac Guildford are "highly instinctive" players who "thrive on loose play", Gibson says.

He acknowledges defensive systems have evolved over the last 10 years, particularly at set pieces, "though not to the extent that they are dominating games".

But he doesn't resile from the fact that the Crusaders' management and players are "clearly not happy with the way we're playing".

"A lot of our individuals are not playing near their best. It's something they're working through themselves. They need to get back to their best play to ensure we're doing the business."

"The boys want to get back to the way they were – being dangerous with the ball in hand. The more we can emphasise that at training, it will come through in the game."

Gibson is confident all it will take is "a couple of good tries to really get their confidence up".

But if they can't beat the Blues with four tries or more, then something is seriously wrong.

1 comment:

Darls said...

Good luck Richie an team, supporting you from here in Brisbane. Cant wait till the Bledisloe here on October to see you play!!