Crusaders braced for tough defence of Super 14 crown

The Canterbury Crusaders go into this season’s Super 14 competition carrying the usual tag as favourites, but the New Zealand-based side will need to overcome the sternest of challenges to maintain its dominance.

The Crusaders have won seven of the 13 tournaments contested by the southern hemisphere’s top provincial sides, including three of the last four.

Last year’s triumph was all the more remarkable as it came despite the introduction of rule changes and the loss of a host of international players, who either retired after the 2007 World Cup or were drawn to Europe by lucrative deals. However, Canterbury are fully aware that the new season, kicking off on Friday, presents an even trickier challenge because of the departure of long-term coach Robbie Deans and the absence of injured flyhalf Dan Carter.

Deans, who was the mastermind of the Crusaders’ last five titles, left New Zealand last season to take up the job of coaching Australia.

Former captain Todd Blackadder takes over coaching duties this season and Deans said he expected the side captained by Richie McCaw to remain as formidable as ever.

“The Crusaders will be thereabouts, no doubt,” Deans said.

“They’ve just got too much not to be, and some [winning] habits. And they’re well supported, they’ve got a good coaching mix there.”

The loss of Carter is possibly a bigger concern.

The goal-kicking flyhalf is a prolific point-scorer at all levels of the game but is out for the season after taking a sabbatical to play club rugby in France, where he subsequently injured himself.

Kiwi domination
New Zealand teams have dominated the competition, winning 10 tournaments, and the Crusaders’ biggest threat is likely to come from their four national rivals.

The Auckland Blues have won the title three times while the Wellington Hurricanes, captained by All Blacks forward Rodney So’oialo, have made the play-offs in four of the last six seasons.

The Bulls provided South Africa with their first Super 14 winners when they beat the Sharks in the 2007 final, but the hangover of that success and the Springboks’ triumphant World Cup campaign carried over into 2008.

The Durban-based Sharks did make the semifinals and will be bolstered by the return of World Cup-winning skipper John Smit and a host of other Springboks, including team captain Johann Muller.

“We have a good squad and some great players,” Muller said.

“We are all excited and looking forward to it.
The important thing is that we start well though. It’s a very difficult competition, and if you lose a couple of games in the beginning, it’s tough to play catch-up rugby and come back from that.”

The only Australian team to win the tournament were the ACT Brumbies, whose glory days disappeared with the retirement two years ago of stalwarts George Gregan and Stephen Larkham.

The New South Wales Waratahs have since taken over the mantle of Australia’s best side, reaching the final in 2005 and again last year.

Despite leading the Waratahs to the decider last year, coach Ewen McKenzie was replaced by Chris Hickey, but skipper Phil Waugh expects the team to perform strongly this season.

“Every year you go into is another opportunity. We missed our chance last year. Hopefully, we can go one better this year,” Waugh said.

The tournament kicks off on Friday with three matches, one each in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, starting with the Brumbies against the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin.

The remaining four matches are on Saturday, including a double-header in South Africa featuring the Sharks away to the Stormers in Cape Town.—Reuters

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