Crusaders are mounting another strong charge towards the Super Rugby final following an impressive 2016 campaign.
Todd Blackadder’s men top the New Zealand Conference, and hold the number one seatd in the overall league rankings after winning 10 of their opening 12 matches.
As a result, they looked well placed to make another trip to the final of the competition for the second time in three years. Victory has eluded Crusaders in their past two attempts on the grand stage, with their last triumph coming in 2008.
Crusaders failure to get over the line in recent years should act as a driving force this season and motivate them to capitalise on their strong position. Right now, Blackadder’s side have been backed at 5/2 (7 June) to end their eight-year drought for the crown by winning the Grand Final in August.
Building A Solid Unit
The Crusaders began the campaign with a defeat on the opening day to the Chiefs, who notched four tries to snatch a 27-21 victory at AMI Stadium.
They responded in convincing fashion with a 28-13 victory over Blues as Richie Mo’unga starred with the boot, making five out of his eight kicks.
Blackadder’s side used their time off well during the bye week to discover their clinical edge around the 22, which they displayed to great effect in their next outing.
The Crusaders scored 57 points in a dominating performance against Southern Kings, making eight tries over the course of the contest, including a brace from winger Nemani Nadolo.
A strong second-half effort proved to be the difference in their clash against the Sharks in Durban, as a late score from Kieran Read stunned the South African outfit. Blackadder and his team were almost on the end of an upset, despite their control of the match against Lions the following week in Johannesburg.
A Ryan Crotty hat-trick had put Crusaders in command, but a late brace from Akker van der Merwe nearly brought the home side back into the contest late in the day. However, Crusaders’ showed resilience in defence to fend off the onslaught and hold out for their fourth win on the spin.
Another tight affair was to occur in Perth against Western Force, but the composure in front of the tryline from Jordan Taufua and the nerve of Mo’unga with the resulting conversion sealed a one-point victory.
Rounding Into Championship Form
Crusaders brushed aside the Jaguares and Brumbies in their next two matches with relative ease, returning to their clinical best. Jone Macilai-Tori continued their scoring spree with a hat-trick against Queensland Reds at AMI Stadium, as Blackadder’s men put in their best performance of the season in a 38-5 win.
However, their run of eight victories on the bounce was brought to an end by defending champions the Highlanders in Dunedin, as they struggled to break through the lines of their rivals for the majority of the contest.
Crusaders got their surge for the top seed back on track with solid wins over the New South Wales Waratahs and Brumbies, leaving them top of the table after 12 matches.
Building Through Youth System
Several of the Crusaders’ key players have come through the youth system at the club, with Mo’unga making the jump up to the senior squad this season, highlighting the value of grassroots development.
The 22-year-old has been impressive for Blackadder’s men this term, notching 142 points through five tries, 19 penalties and 30 conversions. Mo’unga carries the weight of being the replacement for the legendary Dan Carter, but has ensured that his side have not been dealt a huge loss in the fly-half position.
He will only improve in the future, giving hope for another potential great to emerge from Crusaders for club and country.
Richie McCaw also departed Blackadder’s side after the 2015 season, but Kieran Read has risen to the occasion at flanker and skipper to fill the void.
The 30 year old has proven to be an outstanding player for the All Blacks and Crusaders in their quest to add another Super Rugby crown to their trophy cabinet.
Leadership is a vital aspect of the sport, as Exeter Chiefs displayed in their run to the Aviva Premiership final, and the Crusaders have shown that they also have those qualities in abundance, with Blackadder and Read.
Jordan Taufua appears to be the next star off the production line at the club, with a spate of solid performances in the back row.
The 24-year-old has proven to have a nose for the tryline with four scores while playing all of the team’s 12 matches so far this term.
Can Crusaders Clinch Their First Title In Eight Years?
Crusaders’ ability to bring players through their system has been the key to their consistency over the years, and may end their eight years without the Super Rugby crown.
The emerging talent in their team is a testament to their academy system and their coaching philosophy, which has seen them remain a dominant force in the game throughout the past decade despite their lack of a title.
They have enough big-game experience in key areas to battle into the Grand Final, but it will be up to their youthful players to drive them over the line and clinch the championship.