Brian Ashby: Blackadder's boys a chance for another shot at win

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Todd Blackadder.
Todd Blackadder.

It was a long time ago. The financial crisis had just hit, Michael Jackson was talking about touring with his brothers again, and China was about to host the Olympics. Robbie Deans still spoke in Kiwi lingo - the nickname Dingo was yet to come. The year 2008, under the stewardship of Deans, was the last time the Crusaders saw the trophy.

So how much pressure is there on the seven-time champions? Coach Todd Blackadder has always been quick to turn the heat on himself. "We've won nothing."

The Crusaders board extended his contract for 12 months in July last year. His record of four semifinals and one final appearance must have the likes of Jamie Joseph, Mark Hammett and Sir JK more than a little envious, but with a current and two recent IRB World Players of the Year at his disposal, it's not unreasonable to expect the Crusaders to keep intact their unbroken run of making the semis every year since 2001.

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Of course, two of those players, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, for varying reasons, have been somewhat sporadic in their appearances. But McCaw is back and looking hungry and Carter is back in training and will re-enter the fray late in the campaign.

Even without Carter, Blackadder is again spoiled for choice. Colin Slade has always played his best rugby in a red and black jersey, fellow All Black Tom Taylor is Greenwich Mean Time reliable, while Tyler Bleyendaal had something of a breakthrough campaign in last year's ITM Cup.

Pre-season has traditionally meant little in terms of results, but a change in approach in 2014 has given fans cause for optimism. Crusaders coaching staff have introduced the rugby content a little earlier this year, generating more early season competitiveness in the squad with the aim of alleviating their traditionally slow start to Super rugby.

The return to fitness of wing Johnny McNicoll is another big plus. The tall flier's career stalled with a serious ankle injury just a few games into last year's campaign.

A home victory over Dave Rennie's magnificently drilled Chiefs on Friday would do wonders for confidence, and will provide a clear barometer for the opening month or two of the season.

• Brian Ashby is a Newstalk ZB commentator who will be blogging regularly on the Crusaders

- NZ Herald

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