Many people north of Picton would simply wish that the Cantebury Crusaders fall off. That the Crusaders just struggle, unable to keep up with the new wave of dynamic rugby, the new breed of rugby players coming through. While there were a few signs of that last season, there were only a few. The Crusaders don't fall off, they're still here and they will once again be in the upper echelon of the Super Rugby competition.
Remember who was in the final last season? Well some Aussie team won, but the Crusaders worked their way to the final but were unable to go one better. It's pretty hard to find a reason or excuse as to why the Crusaders won't repeat the dose in 2015, the only real angle that I can come up with is that the other teams around Aotearoa and the entire Super Rugby competition will all rise up a level this season. Yup, note that down, I reckon Super Rugby will be peaking this year.
As many an middle aged white man has said, probably to his middle aged white man friends - it all starts in forwards, and that's where the Crusaders will be able to compete with any Super Rugby team. Having a crop of locks like Luke Romano, Dominic Bird and Sam Whitelock is always a good start. These three lads have and could play in an All Blacks jersey whenever they are required and obviously Whitelock's already carving a nice little niche out for himself in the black jersey.
It's not just the line out work of these three that will make them difficult to handle, but they are all round very good footy players. While they might not be quite at the level of Brodie Rettalick, they collectively aren't too far off which is handy. Obviously there's three of them though, with only two spots up for grabs which could serve a few selection headaches but across the season, this sort of depth will greatly help the Crusaders.
It's not just the lock stocks that are flush. The less said about Richie McCaw and Kieran Read the better as I'd just be repeating the many, many kind words that go hand in hand with these two. Having Matt Todd in the mix should give Todd Blackadder plenty to ponder as he can definitely play with a loose forward trio of Todd, McCaw and Read but if he wants a bit more size and impact he can turn to a group of young fellas coming through.
It seems that the Crusaders have wisely taken a liking to my beloved Counties Manukau with Jordan Taufua and Jimmy Tupou looking likely to make an impact this season. Tupou is more of a lock or a flanker while Taufua suits the more free role of being at the back of the scrum, now that definitely makes things tricky for Blackadder. It's not just these two that offer depth, but these two offer Blackadder some variety and their presence on the field can give the Crusaders a different playing style.
I guess having McCaw is probably the key here as he goes alright at both seven and six. If Blackadder is able to extract the best out of his young loose forwards, it'll not only give him options but he'll be able to juggle the minutes of McCaw and Read as well.
The front row stocks are healthy, as usual.
Not only will the Crusaders be able to play a bit more physical and aggressive in the forwards, but they'll also have plenty of impact in the backline. Bless their souls but there's only so many Ryan Crotty's or Tom Taylor's that you can have, you need the variety of their slick, consistent footy and some straight up impact. The return of Robbie Fruean should help that, with Fruean returning from the Chiefs to give the Crusaders a midfield weapon to go along with their less physical but equally as able midfield options.
The return of Fruean is combined with the arrival of Fijian Jone Macilai from Northland and the rise of Nemani Nadolo who was pretty slick last season. Both Macilai and Nadolo could feature on either wing, which would give the Crusaders some freakish attacking power out wide, which would give them a different dimension. Also, with Nafi Tuitavake keen to fight for a spot somewhere, there's plenty of strong ball runners eager to make their mark.
A different dimension to the usual Crusaders general rugby craft. That's led by the uber professionals like Andy Ellis (backed up by Willie Heinz), Dan Carter, Colin Slade along with Crotty and Taylor. There's no weakness here and they'll form the core of any Crusaders back line, but while it's not a weakness, the extra power of guys like Fruean and Nadolo add some spice on top of that core group.
The wildcard is Israel Dagg. Wildcard? Yeah, competition can do funky things to people and with some many dudes fighting for a starting backline spot, it could either see Dagg ramp it up a gear or he simply might not. If Carter stays healthy, then a guy like Slade will have to patiently wait his turn or put pressure on Dagg for the fullback spot. It's a beautiful thing for the coach as it's the same scenario with the forwards, he's got options and can tinker his backline to suit the opposition but if he doesn't quite juggle it correctly, he mightn't get the best out of the group.
For me, the mark of the Crusaders is that they've been able to adapt to any weakness or area of their play that was lacking. They've built a squad for 2015 by not only bringing in a few guys who add to the squad, but they have slowly and surely integrated some younger guys in to the set up that should flourish this season. While the end may be rising up on the horizon looking at the Crusaders from the outside as Carter bids farewell and McCaw doesn't get younger, it looks as though the Crusaders have things under control. It's probably going to piss us all off that the Crusaders will be pretty good once again this season and that they'll be building a solid platform for the future.