Crusaders

Crusaders get ready to fire

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So far the 2007 Super 14 competition has been one of the most tightly contested Super Rugby tournaments yet. As we approach the halfway mark no side is definitively out of the hunt and this year’s contest has also been notable for a South African resurgence.

But is everything set to be turned on its head, as the New Zealand teams get ready to welcome back the 22 reconditioning All Blacks? Has the close contest been more of a case of All Black absenteeism than South African redemption?

The Crusaders have just come out of a bye, and have only one game left – against the Bulls in Wellington this week – before they are able to field six of their frontline players again; players such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Chris Jack and Aaron Mauger will all be ready to explode back into action.

Super rugby’s powerhouse will no doubt benefit immensely from this.

Even without their stars, the Crusaders have proved a force so far – taking apart the Cheetahs, defeating the Reds, and narrowly going down against the imperious Sharks side.

But in all there have been one too many losses for the Crusaders to not feel somewhat relieved at the return of their World Cup aspirants.

One of the fringe All Blacks who has shone for the Crusaders in the first half of the Super 14 has been fullback Scott Hamilton.

And Hamilton doesn’t believe that the lack of the likes of McCaw and Carter is an adequate excuse for some of the unsatisfactory and also narrow losses thus far. Instead he affirms that the successes of the Crusaders belongs to collective resolve.

“We don’t think of ourselves as being under-strength. From the beginning our goal has always been to make the semi-finals, and we want a top two finish so we can play it at home.

“We have expected to win every game and we can’t just say our superstars aren’t here. We don’t think like that. Others can say that about us [this Crusaders side] but we are not going to think like that.”

Hamilton does concede that there has been an experience vacuum.

“All of a sudden I have found myself a bit further down the bus than I used to be, so yes, there has been more of a leadership role for me with a lot of younger guys around, but everybody has the talent to be here. There is the ability, even if there may not be the experience.”

But rather paradoxically, Hamilton does attribute the closeness in the competition to the lack of All Blacks.

“We would like to think of that as being the reason.”

His teammate, scrum-half Andrew Ellis puts forward an alternative reason.

“When you look at the stats it is obvious that the South African teams are so much better at home than away. We tour South Africa for three weeks and that is a long time for us, whereas the South Africans will go for five.

“But they are getting better at touring. There are bigger management teams who counter the travelling.”

Ellis, who is also an All Black himself, reasons that the closeness of the matches is due to the increase of analysis done on opposing sides.

“There is so much analysis done on sides’s strengths and weaknesses. Defensive systems are planned for up until the third phase, and the scrambling defence and organisation is so much better.

“It has become that much harder to score running rugby-type tries.”

Ellis also points to the fact that because some of the younger players currently amongst the defending champions have not even played with the All Blacks, and don’t really know them.

“As far as they [new players] are concerned, this is the team. Especially after the tour we are a very tight unit and we all know each a lot better. We have created our own team.

“When the All Blacks return, for a lot of the younger guys it may be a case of, ‘Who are these guys? This is our team?'”

Yet another All Black who has not been rested, Rico Gear, is probably the most notable exclusion from the conditioning squad of 22.

The winger says he doesn’t mind the situation.

“I do this every year, so it’s nothing new for me, and the other guys are probably getting a bit frustrated that they aren’t playing.”

Gear also commented that the side had been enjoying playing under stand-in skipper Corey Flynn.

“Flynnie is a good captain, and he leads by example rather than by what he says. he is an aggressive player.”

Gear said that they had taken some time to get into it this year because of the new combinations, and he pointed to the fact that improvements had been made each week.

“And when the rest of the guys come in, we will be ready to fire.

“The reason it has been closer is that everybody has been at this level for so long now, everybody has caught up to each other. The South African sides have had their troubles, but they are playing good rugby this year.”

By Chris Waldburger 365 Digital 

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