Justin Marshall 's Opinion

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall: Pressure on Read-less Crusaders

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The Crusaders will be desperate to win this game but unfortunately they're going to have to do it without Kieran Read. Photo / Getty Images
The Crusaders will be desperate to win this game but unfortunately they're going to have to do it without Kieran Read. Photo / Getty Images

Herald columnist Justin Marshall breaks down the five franchises ahead of this weekend's NZ Super Rugby launch.

HIGHLANDERS
This is a team that may slip under the radar and I believe that's where they're at their most comfortable. They didn't cope particularly well with the x-factor players they had last season and the increased expectation that brought.

They're a team that's at their best when they feel like they have to fight for everything.

Take Smith and Smith - Ben and Aaron - out of the equation and they don't have a lot of star players and that will almost force them to go back to what they do best.

Conversely, if things don't start well, they could go downhill in a hurry. Although they've lost a few high-profile players, the core of this side is essentially the same.If they get off to a difficult start, it will feel like they've never got out of that losing pattern from last year and that could have a terrible effect on confidence and fortitude.

One player they can't afford to lose form is Ben Smith. There were times last season when it felt like he was holding the side together. The Highlanders cannot afford a guy like this to get disillusioned by being on a consistently losing team. A couple of early wins is imperative.

CRUSADERS
So much hinges on their first game, at home to the Chiefs tonight.

This is such an intriguing match-up because the Chiefs have had a big-game hoodoo on the Crusaders for a couple of years now.

They will be desperate to win this game but unfortunately they're going to have to do it without Kieran Read.

The way the Crusaders play, a lot of their gameplan is based around Read's skillset at No 8. They will have to adapt to him being missing.

I get the feeling that the only result that will suffice in Christchurch this year is a Super Rugby title. The expectation level is always the playoffs, but in 2014 it is winning finals.

Todd Blackadder and his staff will not be able to lose focus or get distracted. They have been criticised for long periods over the past two years for having an inactive gameplan on attack - their attack has not been at its scintillating best. That's been compounded when guys like Israel Dagg have gone from the Crusaders environment, where they've struggled, into the All Blacks and started performing well again because the gameplan has suited them.

It has not been particularly successful what they're doing on attack and tweaks have to be made, but at the same time Blackadder must respect tradition and the tradition of the Crusaders is to win titles based around ruthlessness on defence.

Make no bones about it, the fans and even the Crusaders board are going to expect to see more creativity and flair on attack, but there are going to be times that is not going to help you win games.

This is the difficult high-wire act Blackadder is going to be asked to perform.

HURRICANES
They are probably the team under the most pressure.

This is their fourth year under Mark Hammett and it has to be a 'moving' year.

They've shown promise in the past three years without truly fulfilling it, but we could really say that about any period in the Hurricanes' history.

Wellington's ITM Cup campaign would have given them heart, but then again, after being the best team all year, they didn't win it.

They've got a good set of loosies and in Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara, they've got the halves to set the backline on fire. They've got the artillery but they've got to use it to throw knockout punches, not jabs.

The Hurricanes have to be mentally tougher. They have to win not only the 'big' games, but the important ones.

Case in point: the Stormers at home last year. It might not have been a 'big' match-up because it wasn't a derby, but home games against South African teams are just as important because you have to win them.

Mentally, they've always been weak when it comes to the crunch.

CHIEFS
You can't be anything but super-impressed by the Chiefs ruthlessness, their talent, their talent identification and the culture they have created in Hamilton. They're the benchmark team, the new Crusaders.

The key for them is to stay innovative and stay ahead of the pack. And even though they've obviously done this well, Dave Rennie and co will need to keep 'managing' that squad to keep everybody happy.

You look at that backline and there is just an abundance of players. They've got guys who should be playing Super Rugby every weekend, but they won't be. A guy like Gareth Anscombe did really well for the Chiefs last year but he might struggle to get a look-in.
Is Tim Nanai-Williams going to get consistent game time in one position?

They've done a wonderfully job of it so far but the Chiefs have to make sure all these guys feel like they are valuable contributors to the cause.

They've made an intriguing addition this year, too, in Robbie Fruean. He's overcome significant health issues and he probably wasn't too happy about how things went for him at the Crusaders in the end. A different voice can lead to a different attitude, give you a bit of a jolt.

One of those voices will be Wayne Smith, a guy who was convinced Robbie didn't have enough 'involvements' during a game to be an All Black. It will be interesting to see if he can now unlock all his potential.

BLUES
There's a sense of anticipation at the Blues, much of it around the million-dollar question of how Benji Marshall is going to adapt. Don't ask me, because I honestly haven't got a clue yet. He will need to attack more direct and straight than the lateral movements of a half in league or the rest of that talented backline will suffer. However, he is talented, I love that he had taken on the challenge and I do believe he will be successfull.

Ma'a Nonu is also back and when you combine his skillset and experience with the likes of Charlie Piutau, you see a backline that has the ability to break down any defence.

Where I have my doubts is the tight five's ability to lay on consistent quality ball.

I know Ali Williams caught the eye often for the wrong reasons last year - particularly when it came to discipline and a body language that spoke of frustration. But he was also their most consistent and reliable ball winner and brought loads of big-game experience. A lot of the tight five onus will now shift to the brilliant Charlie Faumuina and his ball-carrying ability.

The Blues must come up with a gameplan that makes the most of their incredible individual talent, while still working for the team as a whole.

That might sound simplistic, and it's what every team essentially tries to do, but the modern history of the Blues shows they have struggled in this respect. They have always had good players, but they haven't always had a gameplan to utilise them. If they can allow that individuality to shine while working for each other, you have a potent team in the making.

- NZ Herald

Justin Marshall

Justin Marshall is a former All Blacks halfback and current columnist for the New Zealand Herald

Justin Marshall played 81 test matches for the All Blacks, including four as captain. The halfback made his debut in 1995 against France and ended his career 10 years later with a series sweep over the British and Irish Lions. He won five Super Rugby titles with the Crusaders, playing 105 games for the franchise. He commentates for Sky Television.

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