Initial impressions of the Crusaders for 2018

Adam Julian Roar Guru

By , Adam Julian is a Roar Guru & Live Blogger

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    On paper, the Crusaders boast the best team in the competition – nothing unusual given they have done so for the best part of a decade.

    However, it took the arrival of new coach Scott Robertson to break an eight-year title drought in 2017.

    The stringent approach of Todd Blackadder was banished and replaced with a more audacious and vibrant gameplan. Unhinged, the Crusaders won 17 out of 18 games in an emphatic return to the glory days.

    Unsurprisingly, they have assembled a settled roster, with only seven new players in a squad that includes 14 current All Blacks.

    Ominously, ten of those All Blacks – Scott Barrett, Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, Sam Whitelock, Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Kieran Read, Luke Romano and Owen Franks – reside in the forwards.

    Franks and Crockett are ageing, but the evergreen Whitelock moved seamlessly into the captaincy role, energised by the additional responsibility. Todd, Romano, Taylor and Perry are fighting to be top dogs in their positions nationally, so have an extra incentive to perform.

    The support crew for the top brass has a solid, if somewhat youthful, appearance to it. Jordan Taufua and Ben Funnell are proven performers, with the latter a reliable hooking option, while height and injury are surely the only things to have prevented the explosive Taufua from graduating to the highest level.

    If the Crusaders were to suffer an injury crisis, a lack of experience could be exposed in the forwards. Front rowers Mitchell Dunshea, Oliver Jager and Andrew Makalio have only played 11 Super Rugby matches between them, as have lock Quinten Strange and loosie Pete Samu. However, their inclusion shows the Crusaders are thinking long-term and they could all flourish in a winning environment.

    They have added three new flankers. Ethan Blackadder is the son of Todd Blackadder and an honest toiler. Billy Harmon is a promising local product and Tom Saunders returns home after two seasons with the Chiefs.

    The backs played with a spark absent for several years in 2017. On form, Richie Mo’unga has surely passed Lima Sopoaga as the countey’s second-best pivot. He was the leading scorer in the NPC, scoring a record 25 points in the final. He also produced an assured display for the Barbarians against the All Blacks, and performed with verve and control in Super Rugby.

    Mo’unga is well supported by serviceable halfbacks Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond.

    The midfield stocks are outstanding, with the accomplished Ryan Crotty and Tim Bateman fighting for starts alongside impressive youngster Jack Goodhue.

    The choices among the back three are equally imposing. Seta Tamanivalu, David Havili and Israel Dagg are all All Blacks, but have plenty to prove as they are not necessarily guaranteed first picks.

    israel-dagg-crusaders-super-rugby-union-2017

    AP Photo/Mark Baker

    George Bridge was the team’s leading try scorer last year, nabbed a double for the Barbarians against the All Blacks on Sunday, and led the domestic competition for Canterbury in metres run and defenders beaten. Could Bridge soon push himself into the New Zealand frame?

    Under-20 standouts Braydon Ennor and Will Jordan will inject some excitement in the backline. Ennor scored ten tries in ten matches for Canterbury in the NPC, while Jordan was arguably the best back at the IRB Junior World Championships in Georgia in June, and thrived in his first season for Tasman. Fijian Manasa Mataele is prone to spectacular moments.

    The most intriguing addition is that of one-cap All Black Mike Delany, who returned to play for Bay of Plenty after six seasons abroad.

    The 35-year-old first five-eighth provides a more experienced alternative to young incumbents Mo’unga and Hunt, and is perhaps looking to slot into a coaching role post playing. The Crusaders have typically extracted great things from selections that appear to be missfits – remember Norm Berryman?

    Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Jed Brown, Leon Fukofuka, Sione Fifita, Digby Ioane, Marty McKenzie and Sean Wainui are the departures from last year and none of those losses will be keenly felt given their minimal contribution made to the 2017 title success.