The Champion Side Nobody's Talking About
The Crusaders have been a top four bookie favourite every season this century, but there’s something different about 2016: suddenly, no-one is talking about them.
They are the most consistent team in Super Rugby. Everything about them is consistent – from their customary slow starts, to their inevitable finals finishes, to the stability of their roster, to their joyously one-eyed fans. Yet all that consistency has failed to deliver a title since 2008 – something the team does not need reminding of.
They’ve come close. Think 2011 and the final against the Reds in Brisbane, after the Christchurch earthquake forced them into a hellish travel schedule that compounded the emotional toll exacted by the destruction of their home city. There was more heartbreak two years ago when a last minute penalty cost them the final against the Waratahs.
Last year they failed to make the playoffs – a result pounced upon as irrefutable evidence (as if losing two finals wasn’t enough for some fans) that the once mighty Crusaders machine had reached some point of performance obsolescence. This despite the fact that last year the team scored more points than any other finals side and scored more tries than all but one of them.
As much as missing the playoffs last year hurt the side, what arguably hurts more is the fact their place in the contender conversation has been usurped by the likes of the Hurricanes and the Highlanders, and even the Chiefs (thank goodness for the Blues). Well, you would think it would hurt, but maybe it’s the shot in the arm – or the kick in the ass – the Crusaders needed.
“There’s a genuine buzz down here,” says coach Todd Blackadder. “It just feels different.” This from a man who has been a constant in Canterbury and Crusaders rugby circles for a quarter century, first as a player, then as a captain and, for the last seven seasons, as a coach.
“I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there is a hunger in the group, a real hunger for places and for performance and as a coach that’s exactly what you want to see.”
It’s what Blackadder has always demanded. Uncompromising and uncomplicated as a player, the silver-haired former loose forward has always expected nothing short of everything from his roster. He is single-minded (some would say obsessive) about the Crusaders, which has meant he has had to perform a high-wire act at times in terms of balancing his requirements with those of the national selectors. Every coach in Super Rugby has that dilemma, but perhaps none more so than Blackadder.
“It’s not about comparing this team with others I have coached over recent seasons, because I know they all wanted to win titles, and to play their best for this team,” says Blackadder. “But it is fair to say the group seems refreshed, and many of the older guys in the team are leading that.”
One of those older guys is veteran loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett. Already the most-capped Crusader of all time, Crockett lines up for his eleventh season in red and black this year. One of the most talked about scrummagers in world rugby (and not always positively), Crockett in many ways epitomises the expectations of his coach: be a good man, work as hard as you can, and put the team first.
He believes the difference this year is all about expectation.
“I think we have always believed there is an expectation on us to win and yet we haven’t been able to harness that expectation in a positive way,” he says.
“Walking in here now there is still expectation, but there has been a shift in our thinking around that. It’s hard to articulate, but I think the best explanation is we expect to work for each other and compete for our positions, and put in the yards to succeed, rather than putting the outcome first and the process second.”
His coach is of a similar mind.
“We haven’t fired a bullet in anger yet,” says Blackadder, referring to the fact the side is still in the midst of its pre-season schedule ahead of its first competition game against the Chiefs later this month. “But what I am seeing in pre-season gives me great hope that this team is on the right track to do some good things.”
So many of the faces remain the same at Rugby Park, the Crusaders’ training base. Crockett heads a veterans list that includes the likes of Sam Whitelock, Andy Ellis, Ryan Crotty, Owen Franks, Ben Funnell, Matt Todd, captain Kieran Read and Blackadder. Yet, in many ways, the recent renovation of the park is a great metaphor for the side.
While the old grandstand still overlooks the training field, the park now boasts a brand new clubhouse, gymnasium and administration base, too. Just as the campus now combines the new with the old, so too does the side.
Where once there was Dan Carter, there is now a trio of exciting young fly halves – Richie Mo’unga, Marty McKenzie and Ben Volavola – all competing for the number ten jersey. There is an injection of young Crusader prototype forwards like Jed Brown and Mitchell Dunshea. There are old faces in a new environment – the likes of Ged Robinson and Tim Boys – and there are new faces in a new environment, too. Look no further than Counties-Manukau’s breakthrough winger Sione Fifita, for examples of additional flare to augment a potently efficient backline.
And then there is the coach himself, back into a hands-on role with defence. In recent seasons Blackadder has taken an overview position, but he is back in the mixer and enjoying every minute of it.
“It’s been great for me to get back into a direct responsibility job with the team,” he says, laughing (but only just) at the question of why he waited until his final year to do it. It’s an important job, too, considering the Crusaders leaked more points in 2015 than any of the six teams above them on the table.
Crockett can see the change in his long-serving coach, as well.
“He’s really loving being out there and imparting his knowledge and having that kind of impact on the team,” he says. “The boys are responding to his enthusiasm and that can only be good for the side and for Toddy.”
And it may well be good for the fans. For if the two longest serving blokes at the club can feel refreshed in the wake of a season without success and the departure of two of the biggest names in the game’s history – Dan Carter and Richie McCaw – then maybe they could do well to find some faith in the changes.
Even if so much remains the same, a host of new faces and a new-found togetherness means this season might well be very different to the last.
And that should, at the very least, get people talking about them again.
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