It's hard to think of a more frustrating season for Crusaders fans. Just when they're starting to look like the real deal, they turn to dog tucker- something of a recurring theme in 2014.
The 'Canes have owned them this year. Crusaders halfback Andy Ellis believes the Hurricanes actually made them look better than they were. "They probably should've put a few more points on us". Few would argue.
A lot of critics are pointing to Todd Blackadder's selections, with Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Owen Franks all named on the bench. Blackadder's management of player workloads follows a similar path to that of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and that's based on shared experiences. The former test skipper is his own best lab rat. The midweek All Black was outstanding for both Canterbury and the Crusaders through the 90s, but when he was ultimately promoted to the test captaincy, the wheels were already beginning to look a little shaky.
Blackadder had battled a foot injury through the late stages of the 2000 Super Rugby season and in the epic final in Canberra. A broken eye socket in the 2000 NPC final didn't help his cause, and by the time the 2001 Super 12 rolled around, he was a shadow of his once commanding self. That was the last time the Crusaders missed the playoffs, and All Blacks coach Wayne Smith took the difficult choice of dropping his captain.
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Hansen was Crusaders assistant coach through this period and steered Canterbury to just their fourth NPC title at the end of the 2001 season. After years of toil without a break, a combination of missing the Super 12 playoffs and a mid season breather gave Blackadder a new lease of life, and he went on to enjoy several more productive years in Edinburgh. Those lessons have no doubt helped shape the player workload philosophies of both Hansen and Blackadder.
Carter's previous returns from injury in more recent times have shown that it takes him a few games to find his rugby rhythm, while Read is still rebuilding his confidence and fitness. There's no denying that having both at their best for the Crusaders last weekend would have been huge, but it's unlikely their either of them would have been in strong enough form to change the outcome. Although Carter's rugby intelligence was badly missed.
It's often pointed out that the NRL's best players turn up week in- week out. True. But then what isn't pointed out is that even the rock star-laden teams often go through form dips at certain points in the season.
The Crusaders were certainly looking a little sorry for themselves at Monday's training, and the fact that the Blues suddenly found their mojo on the road wasn't lost on assistant coach Dave Hewitt ahead of Saturday night's clash.
"That's probably a bit of a frightening thing really and if they keep to that recipe they're going to be dangerous. They're dangerous anyway- they can be struggling away and then one of their X factor players lights things up and they all follow," he said.
For all that, it's not all doom and gloom for the Crusaders looking ahead to the AMI Stadium clash. Carter and Read will be better for last weekend's game time. Perhaps even more significantly, their own X factor player, Nemani Nadolo is back with the squad and should have some involvement.