Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Crusaders must go on a soul search

Todd Blackadder. Photo / Getty Images
Todd Blackadder. Photo / Getty Images

Resigned and philosophical but massively disappointed, the Crusaders senior leaders will be aware a period of investigation and introspection must now begin.

The Crusaders have morphed from being great in the playoffs to now being great at reaching the playoffs. They are no longer the masters of knock-out rugby; they always get there but it's what they do once they are there that has become the problem.

Their record of making consecutive semifinals since 2009 and last year's final makes them the most successful team in New Zealand over that period. But this is a side with seven titles. Being up there with their peers is good but they aren't measuring up to their former selves; the legacy of Robbie Deans hangs heavy over current coach Todd Blackadder.

The Deans era - as either manager or coach - saw the Crusaders win a title at least every third year. Their worst period back then was to lose in the finals of 2003 and 2004 before securing the title in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

Coming close might be good enough for others but it's not for the Crusaders and this sustained run without silverware will force a number of uncomfortable conversations at board level.

Under Blackadder, the Crusaders have been largely good. The rugby has flowed and the hallmarks of the side have been preserved. Yet they have developed this unwelcome habit of not being clinical and ruthless at times.

Unexpected and unexplained lapses have cost them dear - in 2009 the Cheetahs were the spanner in the works - in 2010 the Force scored an unlikely win to rob the Crusaders of home advantage in the semifinals.

This year the Rebels drilled them in Melbourne and, as well as the Chiefs played on Friday, the Crusaders had yet another third-gear performance.

"They forced us into mistakes and we couldn't really get our game going," was the assessment of captain Richie McCaw. "If you turn it around and compare it with last week, then I suppose we were a few notches off. Big games like that, you have got to get that right.

"You come to win; you don't come just to make up the numbers at playoff time. That's always been the attitude because of what the team has done before. When you get to finals time, that is what you need to do - perform. I guess the frustrating thing is that we didn't do that.

"All the hard work you do is to get it right at that time [during the game] and the feeling the boys have is that they didn't quite nail it. We weren't allowed to - but that hurts."

The TAB and just about everyone outside of the Waikato had them as favourites in the semifinal; the difference between the two sides, most pundits felt, would be the inevitably superior way they coped with the pressure.

The big names, Dan Carter, McCaw, Israel Dagg and Sam Whitelock - they would tighten the screw, make sure the attention to detail was as it should be and come up with immaculate execution that would smother the Chiefs' hopes.

The big surprise was that it wasn't actually that a big shock to see the Crusaders buckle. Carter never really got into the game. McCaw, a colossus against the Bulls, was subdued and the rest of the Crusaders pack was hit by a wall of Chiefs defenders and unable to find their feet or rhythm.

Even accounting for the pressure being applied and the natural tension of the occasion, the Crusaders made too many mistakes: their error count was high after 10 minutes and kept climbing and that's why they need to be asking some tough questions of themselves.

"We had plenty of opportunities in that second half to nail it but poor execution; crossing and things like that ... we were just too error-ridden," said Blackadder.

"It hurts when you lose. It hurts when your team doesn't perform as well as you prepared them to play. But that is sport and life. We had our chance. You come to these big games, you work hard and when you come second, it's not very pleasant.

"We had one of those seasons which was up and down. It came down to little opportunities like tonight ... but we had a good season."

- Herald on Sunday

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