Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Crusaders need fast, strong start


Five seasons and counting. Recollections of the Crusaders' supremacy are fading as they continue to go through their close-but-no-cigar routine.

The Crusaders' sword has not been removed from its scabbard for its ceremonial victory plunge into the turf since Robbie Deans' crew beat the Waratahs in 2008.

They have entered the playoffs in every year of Todd Blackadder's regime but have failed to add to their seven titles and made the final dance only once. Eight franchises without a title in the tournament's 18-year history envy the Crusaders' record but the quintuple glut is a growing irritation for them and their staff.

In the recent chases for the Super 15 jackpot, the Crusaders have been overtaken domestically by the Chiefs and previously lost out to the Reds and Bulls.

Seven of the 2008 squad are still on the Crusaders' books. Five others are playing for other NZ franchises this season. The Crusaders have 19 players who have been picked for the All Blacks and although that gives them depth, it also brings problems.

There are issues about the players' return after their summer recess and conditioning period, sabbaticals and the intrusive June test window.

For all that, the Crusaders ooze strength through their collection of All Black forwards backed up by their halves, inside backs and a determined attitude which is not always prevalent in the competition.

They can rack up a menacing pack including a surfeit of openside riches, with Richie McCaw and Matt Todd, and a growing strength at lock, with Dominic Bird offering an alternative option to Luke Romano and Sam Whitelock.

At their best and in the mood with men such as Kieran Read, Wyatt Crockett and Whitelock, the pack can match any in the competition with the only doubt being their hunger for battle every weekend.

Tom Taylor is super-organised in his general play and goal kicking, suggesting he should be the locum for Daniel Carter. But Colin Slade and Tyler Bleyendaal's skills close to the scrum and vacancies further out suggest a midfield role for Taylor.

More will be asked of the back three. Israel Dagg can be a spluttering contributor in the Super 15 while Zac Guildford has speed but lacks a bit of quality in his all-round game. Nemani Nadolo adds hope on the other flank but if Johnny McNicholl collects his 2012 form before injury nailed him, he could be the business.

The departures of Robbie Fruean and Tom Marshall to the Chiefs have cut some of the midfield familiarity but Ryan Crotty can deliver there with Ray Lee-Lo as backup.

A gauge on the Crusaders comes early. They must start fast to capitalise on a draw which has them with two byes, a tour to South Africa and both games against the Chiefs, done and dusted.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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