Have the Crusaders lost their mojo to the Chiefs?
Crusaders Sean Maitland makes a break against the Waratahs. AAP Image/Ross Setford
I was in one of the boxes at Allianz Stadium (well, someone has to do the hard yards) among a number of former Waratahs and Wallaby greats for the round-10 match between the Waratahs and the Crusaders.
What really surprised me was the way all the former players were adamant that the Crusaders would “win by 20 points”.
When I insisted that the Waratahs are hard to beat at home (even under Michael Foley’s coaching) and that the Crusaders were not the team of the past glory years no one was prepared to listen to me.
They insisted that the Crusaders were the benchmark team and that they would roll on to an inevitable victory and another Super Rugby championship in due course.
I have reason to doubt all this – especially the Super Rugby championship – will happen. The perennial champions have not won the tournament since 2008.
And what was significant about 2008? That was Robbie Deans’ last campaign with the Crusaders before taking up the task of reviving the fortunes of the Wallabies.
It’s often over-looked during the glory days of the Crusaders that the franchise had a particularly rocky early couple of years.
In their first year they scrapped a win against the Waratahs at Christchurch mainly due to a disputed ruling by a New Zealand referee.
It was when Wayne Smith came on board as coach a couple of years later that the franchise started to become the stand-out franchise in Super Rugby.
And even then it was a precarious climb to the top. Mid-way through their first championship-winning season I wrote a piece stating that the only team that could not win the tournament was the Crusaders.
When the Crusaders made the finals their coach Wayne Smith posted this article up in the dressing room before their semi-final.
The Christchurch Press, in the spirit of fraternity with a fellow journalist, ran the story on its front page about my fearless prediction and its failure after the Crusaders made their first final.
I then compounded my troubles by making a second fearless prediction that the Crusaders would not defeat the Blues at Auckland’s Eden Park in the final.
It’s history now that Norman Maxwell scored a flukey try and the Blues’ dynastic ambitions were over and a new dynasty was in the making.
Smith went on to win another Super Rugby title before becoming the coach of the All Blacks.
Deans, who had been the manager of the Crusaders, then took over and won another five Super Rugby titles.
The key to the coaching systems of Smith and Deans was a balance between a strong defence and a willingness to attack, especially on turnover ball.
The Crusaders developed systems where players identified when a dominant tackle was made against an opponent running with the ball, perhaps in a too-high body position.
The Crusaders would flood the tackle area to win the turnover. But just as importantly, the backs would immediately align flat to exploit any counter-attack options that were available.
I once asked Deans about this and remarked that it all seemed so easy and natural. In his laconic way he pointed out that it took a huge amount of practice to get players to automatically be in the right position to take what seemed to be a correct and natural attacking option.
Switch forward to 2012. The Crusaders ended the June Test-break period with a couple of smashing victories against the Blues and the Highlanders. But before that they lost to the Rebels in one of the upsets of the season.
Last weekend they lost to the Hurricanes in Christchurch. The point here is that the Crusaders lost away from home.
They have a 50-50 ratio of wins in South Africa, for instance, in the course of the Super Rugby tournaments since 1996.
This doesn’t sound very impressive. But it is the best of any New Zealand or Australian team.
At home they are virtually unbeatable, especially in must-win matches. Admittedly the Hurricanes scored two tries that another referee, other than Bryce Lawrence who has an unhappy knack creating refereeing controversies, might have ruled out for obstruction.
Todd Blackadder, the coach who took over from Deans and an iconic Crusaders captain, is reported to be “livid” at Lawrence’s “botched calls”. Meanwhile, Dan Carter, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg were out injured.
The fact remains the Crusaders did not seem to have a game plan to break open the Hurricanes. And this is something that has marked Blackadder’s tenure as coach. It is not apparent that the team has a system of playing.
The Crusaders seem to rely on the talent of the players to do something that will pull off the victory. And with 10 or so All Blacks in the team and on the bench, this is usually good enough.
To my mind, Blackadder has not added value to the Crusaders in his tenure in the way that Mark Hamnett (a former Crusaders forward coach) has added value to the Hurricanes and Wayne Smith has added value to the Chiefs in their new coaching set-up with Dave Rennie as head coach.
Smith has been talking about the Chiefs bringing more than defence to their game this season.
The Rennie-Smith coaching combination has taken the flakiness out of the Chiefs play by giving them a system of play that allows them to create chances.
It permits them to play expansively when they force turnovers through the sort of tough, aggressive defence that Smith put into the All Blacks in 2007 when they won the Rugby World Cup tournament.
Smith points out that the Chiefs are ranked fourth best on defence and attack.
This can be contrast with the Stormers, who are the best defensive team but only the 12th best attacking side, and the Hurricanes, who have the best attack but only the 10th best defence.
On Friday night in Hamilton both the Chiefs and the Crusaders face their moments of truth.
The Crusaders will have their essential player Kieran Read back. He is the runner who provides the hard shoulder to the Crusaders attacks when they move the ball across the field one way and then back again looking for a mismatch.
They will also have their season on the line. If they defeat the Chiefs they then play the Force at home in the final match before the finals.
Two wins should ensure the Crusaders make the finals. But if they lose to the Chiefs they are at the mercy of a number of other results.
There is also the matter of being the leading New Zealand provincial side.
If the Chiefs (who are already established as the winner of the New Zealand Conference) come out on top, their victory will entrench them as the team that has taken over the Crusaders’ mantle as the flag-bearer of the New Zealand Super Rugby teams.
This time I’m not tempting the mockery of Wayne Smith. I won’t be making any fearless predictions against his Chiefs taking out the Crusaders on Friday night.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
The Roar needs an editor! Tristan is off to tackle a new role with us over on Techly.com.au, which means we're looking for someone to fill his boots. Love sport, know digital publishing (yes, that does mean being a bit of computer guru) and keen to work with the team in Newcastle? If you're a proven superstar, or someone on the rise with a record to back it up, we want to hear from you. Apply now!
We're also looking for freelance writers who know tech, gadgets, games and trends inside and out to join us on this new adventure. Get in touch if you've got the goods.
The Roar is giving you the chance to win 1 of 19 prize packs to Australian Open 2014! Each lucky winner will receive four evening tickets to Rod Laver Arena, plus access to 3 hours in the Heineken VIP Bar. Enter here.