Preview: Crusaders vs Reds
And still they live! The defending champions against all odds are alive and fighting in the Super 14, and hosting an embattled Queensland side, they will have the top four looking nervously on.
With the greatest respect to Phil Mooney’s team, it is probably more a Queensland selection XV, or shall we call it a premier’s side. With academy players and young lads picked from Brisbane’s club sides, it will be arguably the least experienced Reds team in Super history.
They are minus so many key planks including captain and vice James Horwill and Berrick Barnes. Add to this Digby Ioane, statistically Australia’s best player in the Super 14, Mark McLinden, Poutasi Luafutu, Will Genia, Peter Hynes, Hugh McMeniman and former All Black Daniel Braid.
If those names were present in the side, one would think that the Crusaders may be threatened.
But they will not be.
Local betting agencies have offered odds as high as $8 on the match. It is the highest single odds on any match played so far this season.
It is a shame, for the Reds have played an extensive and flamboyant brand of rugby that has to be admired. But equally, it could be called painful, with their lack of ball security and ruck commitment. No other team has conceded more turnovers in the competition, and no other side has lost more possession at the ruck.
Cardinal sins that may consign the Reds to another wooden spoon.
For all of their attempts to play entertainers, with Wallabies in their back line such as Quade Cooper, Barnes, Ioane, Hynes, and pack enforcers such as Horwill and McMeniman; there has been far too much capitulation.
Perhaps, the game plan that Mooney implemented came one season too early?
Or if not, then consistency is the issue. You do not defeat teams like the Sharks, and beat the Blues at home, if there is not something special lurking under the surface.
For the Crusaders, they have not dazzled as in previous years.
In four of their seven championship years, they have never lost more than two matches in an entire season, led the points scoring charts, and headed most statistics.
This year, they are among the least effective of all attacking sides, and wield half the number of All Blacks seen by sides such as the Hurricanes, Chiefs, and even the Blues.
They too, have suffered with injury tolls.
But Canterbury and their esteemed history in the south, has seen that coach Todd Blackadder, the first championship winning captain back in 1998, has ensured tradition has continued.
How strong will they be next year with Dan Carter back at the helm?
For now, they possess the same measured patience, and the same ruthless precision that have become a hallmark of Crusaders rugby.
All Black captain Richie McCaw is back in the team, and if they needed anymore motivation to reach the top four, loyal Canterbury servant Leon Macdonald will now be playing in his last season. Add test players such as Brad Thorn, Andy Ellis, and outstanding flanker Kieran Read, and it could be a long night for the Queensland side.
They are striving to reach another semi final. Since 1996, the Crusaders have only missed out on the top four on three occasions. Against the Reds, those statistics are even direr.
The Crusaders are on a ten match winning streak against Queensland. Their last success against the red and blacks was in 1999, with a team boasting John Eales and Tim Horan.
With the Waratahs, Sharks, Bulls, Chiefs and Hurricanes above them on the table, the Crusaders can easily reach the top four due to a quirk of the draw.
Those five teams, ranked one to five, must play each other on three occasions – Hurricanes V Chiefs and Waratahs V Sharks this weekend, and Bulls V Sharks the next. That is three losses that must be suffered, that leaves the door tantalisingly open for the seven time champions.
Crusaders by 15.