The New Zealanders
The Crusaders of 2018 have a certain aura about them. It is an aura of invincibility, of flawless rugby played with unremitting intensity and total focus. A look at their squad tells of enviable continuity in all aspects of their game, continuity in coaching, and personnel.
Scott Robinson continues as coach after a near-flawless 2017 season that saw his team lose just one game on their way to the trophy. If we look back on 2017, and the style of rugby the Crusaders produced all season, we can have little doubt that they will stick to that winning formula in 2018. They know what works, they know their strengths and weaknesses, and they have the confidence that comes from consistency.
The off-season saw Ronan O’Gara, the ex-Ireland flyhalf, recruited from Racing-Metro on the recommendation of Dan Carter and others, to join Robinson’s coaching squad. He comes into the coaching set-up on a one year contract, which may be extended at the end of 2018.
O’Gara’s focus will be the outside backs, the counter attack, and kicking plans. He will assist Brad Mooar with the half-backs from time to time.
The Crusaders squad is an illustration of the kind of continuity other teams only dream about. The off-season saw just 9 players leave, and only one of those, Marty McKenzie, went to another Super Rugby team, the Chiefs. The rest dropped down a level, to club rugby.
Just seven new recruits joined the squad, with Tom Sanders the only recruit with Super Rugby experience. He joined from the Chiefs. The rest of the rookies are all youngsters who have come through the Crusaders and New Zealand junior systems.
Perhaps the best illustration of the Crusader’s depth is the 13 All Blacks in the squad. That represents the core of the world champion national team playing in just one club.
Yet another team that starts their 2018 season with a bye, the real season kicks off on the 24th February with a home game against the Chiefs, followed by another home fixture against the Stormers. This is followed by two fairly intense away games, against the Hurricanes and then the Highlanders.
The intensity lifts a little with another home fixture as the Bulls arrive from South Africa.
The ‘Saders hit the road to South Africa next, playing the Lions in Johannesburg, before hopping across the Atlantic to play the Jaguares in the Argentine.
A bye is followed by the Sunwolves back home in New Zealand, then a short trip to Australia for the Brumbies and the Rebels.
Back home it is still Australian opponents as the Waratahs come calling, before the Crusaders visit the Blues in Auckland.
It is return fixture time, and possibly a season definer, when the Hurricanes visit Christchurch, before the Crusaders have to visit the Chief. Another bye follows, and the season draws to a close with consecutive home games against the Highlanders and then the Blues.
In one short sentence? They will be contenders, again.
Do not expect any change to the way the Crusaders play rugby. They will use their pack of forwards to provide superb first phase ball, and plenty of second phase ball to a backline that plays direct, running rugby with the striking power of Israel Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu, George Bridge, Manasa Mataele, Jone Macilai, and David Havili to score plenty of tries.
We can expect a unit for tight forwards that dominate the midfield, playing to the All Blacks’ established 2/4/2 pattern, with loose-forwards and the hooker drifting out to the fringes and the big guns setting up the drive or the decoy in the middle.
This is a team that has it all, and knows how to win both pretty and ugly. They are contenders. Anybody that wants to win the trophy has to beat the Crusaders first.