Super 14: 10-Time Champions Meet in Contrasting Situations
It is the tale of two highly decorated teams, in a clash where one has dramatically exceeded expectation, and another has vastly under achieved.
The Crusaders have shown what a truly remarkable team and culture there is in Canterbury. Nothing appears to upset the rhythm of a side that is arguably the greatest team in world domestic rugby.
Of course, the Red army of Munster, or the fanatics of Toulouse may debate such a point. But on this season’s evidence the Crusaders have emphasised their immense pedigree.
No other side has turned over so many great players since the turn of the century, and any thoughts of the red and blacks suffering without the services of two of the world’s marquee rugby talents—in Robbie Deans and Dan Carter, have long fallen by the wayside.
The panache and dominance seen in previous years isn’t there. After the first five rounds the team had limped its way to just one win, entrenched deep in the recesses of the Super 14 table.
But since then they have won six of their last seven, and gotten better as the season has progressed. After recording margins of six or less in their first five victories, they have recently notched 12 and 20 point triumphs.
Equally, they have never lost by more than seven.
This is not an all powerful Crusaders team as seen in 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2008 (they lost five matches in total over those four seasons).
This hybrid of Crusaders is tenacious scrappers. On the verge of a record 11th semi-final appearance, that makes the seven time champions and two times runners up even more dangerous.
Unfortunately, the Blues deserve no such plaudits.
The three time champions arrived in 2009 with high expectations.
Coach Pat Lam was seen as a more natural fit to the side’s explosive talent, a team that could field ten All Blacks in their side, including a test match strength tight five.
It is for this reason that the usual expectation has come attached to the side.
Such promise has appeared in moments, but as Lam has explained more and more in post match conferences recently, bursts of brilliance do not win games.
And when one looks at the sides that the Blues have conquered, the Force, Stormers, Cheetahs, Highlanders and Lions do not read as a “who’s who” of 2009 Super 14 rugby.
There is pride lurking underneath this Blues chassis, but pride doesn’t win championships.
To be fair to the side, they have never looked like giving up. Even in the face of conceding half centuries, which they have done twice, the attacking potential of the team has always been evident.
If anything, consistency and defence are two of the key factors in title winning teams. The Auckland based franchise has shown none of this, but as leading try scorers of the tournament, there is potential for the future; showing plenty of the third necessary attribute in top teams—attack.
It is here where the danger lurks for the Crusaders.
They are balanced, pragmatic and a quality side; possessing the fore mentioned consistency and defensive traits. They are most certainly not an attacking side.
Against the Blues, a notoriously average defensive team, this may not be the case.
But at Eden Park, a desperate Blues team will be playing for self-respect and the greatest reward that can be bestowed on a New Zealand based player: an All Black jersey.
If they throw caution to the wind, they have the attacking arsenal to cut any team to ribbons. The Blues faithful have been waiting all season for a blue chip performance from their team. Crusaders fans will be hoping this is not the day.
Key player for the Crusaders: Are three men, the outstanding loose forward trio of Thomas Waldrom, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read. Waldrom may not challenge for test match honours this season, but will undoubtedly earn a Junior All Black cap.
Read is an outstanding blind side and will look to work with his illustrious partner to ensure the Blues attack will not be unleashed.
Key player for the Blues: Isaia Toeava, a man who would be in the running for the player of the tournament. The great dilemma for him is where to put him in an All Black backline, but he will certainly earn a spot on the bench as the “ultimate utility”. With three fellow test players around him in the Blues backline, it will be his magical skills that could enable their season to end on a high.
BLUES: 15 Rudi Wulf, 14 Rene Ranger, 13 Anthony Tuitavake, 12 Isaia Toeava, 11 Joe Rokocoko, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Chris Smylie; 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Tom Chamberlain, 6 Peter Saili, 5 Kurtis Haiu, 4 Jay Williams, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu (capt), 1 Tony Woodcock. Reserves: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Dean Budd, 19 Andrew van der Heijden, 20 Grayson Hart, 21 Jamie Helleur, 22 Paul Williams.
CRUSADERS: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Jared Payne, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Adam Whitelock, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andy Ellis; 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 Richie McCaw (capt), 6 Kieran Read, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Michael Paterson, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Jason Macdonald, 1 Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: 16 Dan Perrin, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Ross Filipo, 19 George Whitelock, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Sean Maitland, 22 Hamish Gard.
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