Rugby: Crusaders happy to be back on the road

By Michael Brown

The Crusaders are in South Africa after playing their first home game in almost two years last week. Photo / Getty Images
The Crusaders are in South Africa after playing their first home game in almost two years last week. Photo / Getty Images

Far from feeling aggrieved about being back on the road after only one game at home in nearly two years, the Crusaders are actually enjoying being in camp and living out of suitcases again.

The team spent virtually more time away from Christchurch than in the shaky city last season - a predicament they referred to as the "new normal" - and last week played their first game in Christchurch for nearly two years when they christened their new temporary stadium at Rugby League Park with an emotional 28-21 win over the Cheetahs.

They had little time to reflect on that, however, as they once again packed their bags and boarded a plane for the long journey to South Africa to meet the Lions and Bulls in consecutive weeks.

"I think it's actually come at a good time for us," coach Todd Blackadder said. "We have never gone [to South Africa] so early in the competition before so it's new ground for us. And normally we would spend three weeks here so to spend only two is good.

"We are in really good nick. There's a lot of energy in the team and everyone has adjusted to the time zone and are prepared. It certainly doesn't feel like groundhog day. The guys are really enjoying being together. It's a new team, with a lot of new guys.

"We are in really good shape and there's a really good feeling about the side. The energy is right there and the guys want to do well so my expectations are that we are going to have a really good two weeks and put a good performance on the track, one that we want to walk away from feeling really proud of. And get some points. Points are critical."

It will help that Dan Carter is back from his long-term groin injury and will make his first start of the season. He played 40 minutes off the bench against the Cheetahs last weekend and showed some good touches. His first was to put centre Robbie Fruean away for a try.

Carter's poise and experience will be critical, especially in a hostile environment like Ellis Park with its rowdy crowd and altitude. The Lions have said they will target Carter because of his importance and the fact he's coming back from a long layoff but it's something the world's best first five-eighths has heard countless times before.

"We aren't expecting him to work miracles," skipper Kieran Read said. "Everyone watches how Dan plays and he's going to put in a top-class performance most weeks. We expect him to run our game plan and do it really well. It's up to us as a team to back him up and make his comeback work really smoothly."

It hasn't gone as well for the Crusaders as they would have liked and most observers expect of the seven-time champions. Two wins from four games represents a lean return for them, and their seventh-placed position on the table is inflated somewhat by the fact they have already picked up four points for the bye.

But it's the nature of their performances that have been un-Crusader like. Few can remember a time when their scrum was shunted back so horribly like it was against an unheralded Chiefs outfit earlier this month.

Carter and Richie McCaw, who is targeting a return when the side returns from South Africa, are keys to their success and if they can remain healthy for the bulk of the competition there's an expectation the Crusaders will be among the contenders.

"I don't think we are too far away," Blackadder said of their form. "We have been a bit of a work in progress. We were pleased with a lot of the game against the Cheetahs.

"It's all coming together. Every week poses a different challenge. This week is to make sure we have well and truly got the energy we will need to win this game."

There is no better side in the competition who understand that.

Crusaders team to play the Lions at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, on Sunday (4.05am NZT): Israel Dagg, Sean Maitland, Robbie Fruean, Tom Taylor, Zac Guildford, Daniel Carter, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read, Matt Todd, George Whitelock, Samuel Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Quentin MacDonald, Ben Franks, Tom Donnelly, Luke Whitelock, Willi Heinz, Ryan Crotty, Tom Marshall.

- APNZ

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