Key Points:

You couldn't blame Robbie Deans for feeling grumpy. At the head of the country's one professional sporting dynasty, Deans' chances of adding a fifth title with the Crusaders to his unparalleled resume have been dealt a savage blow by three of his countrymen. What must make it sting even more is that two of them - Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen - are as red and black as him.

Welcome to Super 14, World Cup style where New Zealand franchises will make do without 22 All Blacks on reconditioning programmes for the first seven rounds.

Speaking to the Herald on Sunday from Sydney, Deans was careful and measured, the hallmark of his personality, but the message was still loud and clear.

"It doesn't matter what I think," he said of the reconditioning that will rob him of seven of the greatest rugby talents in the country. "This group has been given the licence to do what they think is appropriate to win the World Cup.

"There's no point in me killing time contemplating the principle behind it."

There's nothing Deans likes better than winning. He's good at it too, having compiled a 68-22 win-loss record in his seven years in charge, with just a single draw. He's helped turn Jade Stadium into a fortress, having won 21 in a row at home.

His second year in charge, 2001, is the only one in which Deans' side failed to reach the final. In creating that record, the Crusaders have become a byword for sporting excellence in this country.

Not only that, they have introduced the word 'culture' into the sporting lexicon. Crusaders and culture have become intertwined but, as positive as the environment down there is, it's a convenient smokescreen.

The Crusaders have not won six titles because of their culture. It has helped, but they've won because they have had a little luck, a heap of talent and brilliant leadership.

Without full access to the talent, they're going to need even more of the latter to succeed this year.

"Every year is unique," Deans said. "You've got new people coming in every year. This was just a year when we hadn't anticipated the amount coming in. I guess it's been made more difficult due to the obvious challenge of having the All Blacks out."

Perhaps surprisingly, Deans anticipates more difficulties at the end of the year, when players such as Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Reuben Thorne, Chris Jack, Leon MacDonald and Aaron Mauger return. Integrating six players into the mix in one swift hit will not be easy but they will all be thirsting for action and will need the match play.

"They'll be coming in cold. You see it in the NPC when guys come in and they're lacking match condition but this is another step up from there."

The start of the year will give opportunities to players in whom Deans and his staff have shown particular faith. Not all the names will be familiar, such as promising loose forward Pete Nixon, but Rua Tipoki's is. He has been brought in for his leadership, something in which the Blues weren't prepared to invest.

In an interview on the Crusaders website, Tipoki said he had been "blown away" by the little things in his new environment.

That was underlined when Robbie's wife Penny Deans arrived at the Tipoki household with lasagne while Tipoki's pregnant wife Mihi was struggling with morning sickness.

It's a small anecdote but one which lends a little insight into the reason why the Crusaders just seem that more prepared to cover each other's back when the game gets tight.

Preparation is the other key. When the Herald on Sunday came calling, Deans had just come out of a meeting with his staff, working on contingencies for the South Africa tour which starts for the Crusaders in week three. The old concept of one game at a time exists only in cliches now.

The Crusaders have been handed a brutal draw - "you could suggest it's been set up that way but every team thinks they've been hard done by," Deans offered - and want to cover every base at least twice.

The Crusaders will miss Deans, who has been with the side in some capacity for 10 years. Whether he makes it to 11 is another matter. "It [my future] is something I'm starting to think more about," Deans admitted. "I've had some discussions with our people here, but yes, I'm contemplating my future."

If he goes out a winner, it will raise his stock significantly. If he doesn't, Graham Henry has handed him a ready-made excuse. Not that he'd think to use it.

Winning the Super 14 this year would be Deans' finest achievement. It also could be his fifth and last. And only a fool would bet against either.

"The chemistry has come together really well," Deans said ominously.

"We won't be adjusting our aspirations because of the circumstances."