Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Crusaders' aim: retake the crown

Depth of experience key in beating Sharks to reach final — and failure isn’t an option

A few years ago there was a discussion at Crusaders' management and administration level about what would be considered a good season.

It came down to this: making the final or winning the final?

Some thought making the final would be satisfactory - given the vagaries of referees and possible disadvantage of travel and so on. But after a short discussion it was decided only winning the final would be acceptable; the inference being anything short of being crowned champions would be considered a failure.

Such are the standards at the most successful franchise in Super Rugby history, which, while it has featured in the playoffs every year since 2001, it hasn't won a title since 2008, the last year of Robbie Deans' reign. It was their seventh.

The closest Todd Blackadder has come to a successful season as Crusaders coach was in 2011, the year they lost 18-13 to the Reds at Suncorp Stadium, a traumatic defeat given what they had experienced throughout the season, a year of constant earthquakes, travel, of fear for their homes and their families.

Their loss in Brisbane was preceded by a trip from Cape Town where they convincingly beat the Stormers in their semifinal.

There will, therefore, be pressure on the Crusaders to beat the Sharks at AMI Stadium tomorrow night in order to qualify for next week's final, but the focus will be on the performance rather than the result.

The experience among the Crusaders will be key to handling it. This is a team that has been together for a long time. Hooker Corey Flynn will celebrate his 150th match. Lock Sam Whitelock, with 54 tests, is considered almost a veteran despite being only 25, loose forwards Kieran Read and Richie McCaw are men with immense experience at the highest level and then there is Dan Carter, who according to halfback Andy Ellis is displaying almost unprecedented enthusiasm in the lead-up to this match.

Carter, still on the self-imposed booze ban he started during the rehabilitation of his latest Achilles injury, has played his last two games for the Crusaders at No 12, the place where he began his career 11 years ago. Partnering him with Ryan Crotty in the midfield is working on every level for the Crusaders. It allows them to stick with the consistent Colin Slade at first-five, it strengthens a midfield that lacked depth, and it gives the impressive Crotty a little more room. Then there is the added kicking option the left-footed Carter brings, along with his spatial awareness on attack that is paying dividends for their strike weapons Israel Dagg and Nemani Nadolo.

Finally, Carter's calm demeanour provides confidence to all of his teammates.

All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw told the Rugby Site: "He has the time to make it look easy even when he is making decisions on the hop. He runs the game for us and does it with so much poise that his confidence lifts the players around him."

The Crusaders are the only New Zealand team left in the competition, a boon given they have struggled in derby matches this year, winning the double against the Highlanders, but losing twice to the Hurricanes and once to the Chiefs and Blues. Revenge against the Sharks would put them a step closer to success, and probably against a Waratahs team which has long promised it but delivered little of it.

- APNZ

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