2013 Season Preview: CRUSADERS
by Brendan Bradford –
If there’s one team that has dominated Super Rugby from inception to expansion, it’s the Canterbury Crusaders. They’ve won seven titles, made the play-offs in 14 of 17 seasons, produced some of the best players and coaches in the world and are consistently ranked by players at other franchises as the most likely side to win the competition. But, they haven’t actually done that in four years.
It’s a fact that rankles fans and motivates players and one of the reasons why, even after this long at the top, ‘good’ isn’t good enough – only perfection will do.
Last season they were defeated 20-17 in the semi-finals by the Chiefs, in what many regarded as one of the best games of the year; in 2011, they were beaten finalists in Brisbane as the Queensland Reds lifted their maiden title and in 2010, home advantage was enough for the Bulls to end their interest, again at the semi-final stage. They are knocking on the door but will it open in 2013?
After missing the start of last season, a fully fit Dan Carter will be back but Richie McCaw – on extended leave – will not. Neither will assistant coach and long time Canterbury servant Daryl Gibson, who has joined the Waratahs, while wingers Sean Maitland (Scotland) and Zac Guildford (indefinite leave) are also missing. Depth may be an issue for the Cantabrians but with Kieran Read assuming the captaincy and Aaron Mauger and Tabai Matson joining the coaching ranks, the Crusaders look to be in safe hands.
Ryan Crotty seems to have been around for a lot longer than his 24-years suggests and the midfield back was recently named one of the Crusaders’ vice-captains after cementing his spot in the backline with a series of great performances last year. Lock Luke Romano made his way in professional rugby the hard way. Never in the academies or rep-teams as a youngster, Romano battled away as a club player and worked as a builder until he got the call-up for the Canterbury provincial side in 2009 and the Crusaders in 2011. Last year he achieved his dream of playing for the All Blacks, debuting against Ireland in June and making another 8 test appearances.
Rugby News spoke to both recently as the side prepares to regain its status as the competition’s premier side.
Looking back at 2012, you came so close to beating the Chiefs in the semi-final but went down 20-17. How hard is it to take a loss like that, and where do you build from there?
Luke Romano: “It’s tough. You work so hard during the year for 16 Round-Robin games and a Quarter-Final but they don’t mean much because it’s all about that one game and one night. To come so close and fall at that final hurdle is tough to take, but there’s always next season and we’ll just have to learn from our mistakes.”
Ryan Crotty: “Looking back it was disappointing because we were so far under our potential, but after a pretty brutal review process, a lot of learning has come out of it.”
LR: “It’s a whole new year and a whole new team and everyone’s decided that now the season has finally come about and with preseason trailing off, we’re just ready to get stuck back into it.”
RC: “Yep, and when it comes to this season, you’ll see a Crusaders team playing a far better brand of rugby and the learning that we took out of last year will make us a far better team.”
How did your preseason go?
RC: “It’s been really good. We were sort of split into three groups, so a lot of the boys were training a few months before Christmas, then a few of us non-All Blacks who’ve had quite a lot of footy, came in just after Christmas and the AB’s came in last, so it’s been really good.”
I heard you had a pretty interesting preseason camp?
RC: “I guess you could call it a training camp; it was more of a bonding session over the week really.”
LR: “Yeah, we were split into four groups and went to four different regions of the franchise and did some work in the community. Then we had to hitchhike from those locations to Hamner Springs and we went hunting and fishing for a day and a bit. It was pretty fun.”
RC: “It was good to get the young guys together with the All Blacks and really get the boys tight before we embark on this Super Rugby campaign.”
You seem to have a really good connection with the Canterbury area and with the people you represent?
LR: “Yep, and that’s a driving force behind the Crusaders. Even though we’re based in Christchurch, it was important to get out there and see those parts that you don’t often get to. Those communities really embraced us and hopefully they had a good time because we did.”
RC: “We did a lot of community stuff like painting fences and a few jobs around the place and we cooked people dinner. It was good to give back to the regions that we don’t always play at and no one got sick from our cooking, so I guess that’s a success!”
With the season almost upon you, competition for spots must be starting to pick up?
RC: “Yeah, dead right mate and it’s a big thing for us this year. We’ve got a lot of All Blacks, but it’s about being equal, no jersey is on anyone’s back yet and it’s really good to have those young guys pushing hard and trying to get into the team.”
LR: “For a lot of the new boys coming in [the first trial against the Hurricanes] was their first time playing at that level. They’ll be better off for it and they’ll know what it’s all about and hopefully they can keep pushing for a spot in the team. It certainly makes the experienced boys work a bit harder to keep their place.”
You played without Richie McCaw for the first couple of months last season but what impact will his self-imposed absence have this year?
LR: “Losing Richie is a big loss. He’s a quality player, but we’ve got cover in Matt Todd and George Whitelock who we can replace him with. The good thing about the Crusaders is the depth we have this year.”
RC: “It’d be nice to have Richie there; he’s one of the best – if not the best – player in the world. But it just opens up an opportunity for one of the other guys like Matt and George. It’ll also give the opportunity for other players to take up more responsibility, which Richie has taken on his shoulders for the last few years. You’ve gotta look at the positives. Richie’s worked bloody hard and he deserves some time off so we’re seeing it as an opportunity.”
Do you think the month long lay-off during the June test window last year affected the non-All Black players or the team in general?
RC: “That’s hard to say really. I just trained hard, went back to club footy and kept fit for when it rolled back around. I think if you look at it as an issue, it might become one. That’s just how it is and you can’t change it so just get on with it and like anything just look for the positives.”
You’re one of the vice-captains this season Ryan, do you enjoy that added responsibility?
RC: “Yeah, it’s awesome. I’ve been playing around the older guys for a while now but I’m still quite young and am really close with some of the younger guys. So, just trying to get the general feel for the group, getting everyone in top gear and I think stepping up into that leadership role will really help my game and it’s something I’m really excited about.”
Luke, last year was a break-out year for you that culminated with an All Blacks call-up. That must be pretty satisfying considering your rugby background?
LR: “It was pretty outstanding and a bit of a shock at the same time. I didn’t see that coming, being picked up by the All Blacks for the June series, but yeah, obviously it was an enjoyable season.
“I didn’t come through the Canterbury academy system, I was just playing club footy and grinding away with a dream to become an All Black one day. I just kept plugging away at it and working hard. It’s not the most common route to get to the AB’s but it’s the way I had to travel.”
The New Zealand conference looks like it will be hotly contested again this year. Who are the main contenders?
LR: “It’s hard to say really. Obviously, the Chiefs are ones to look out for, the Highlanders played well last year and the Canes and Blues are always there or thereabouts. It’s always a hard conference with five really good teams but I’d have to probably say the Crusaders!”
RC: “Good question. I think the Blues will be good, even though they’re rebuilding, JK (John Kirwan) is a great coach and the Chiefs will be good again this year too. The Highlanders have recruited really well and they’ve got the same – if not more – All Blacks than the Crusaders. It’ll be a really good competition just like it was last year and any team on its day can be very dangerous.”