Super Rugby preview: Crusaders
The most decorated Super Rugby side of all time, it's now six years since the Crusaders last won a title. Is 2014 the year they turn seven trophies into eight?
Last Year: Two years in a row now the Crusaders have lost to the Chiefs in the semi-final, with their victors then going on to lift the trophy.
In both 2012 and 2013 the Crusaders finished with 11 wins from 16 matches, forcing them to play an extra match in the Wildcard Round and then go on the road for the semi-final to Hamilton. The message therefore is simple; the Crusaders need to win more.
Their record in Super Rugby overall is absolutely mind-blowing - they haven't missed the last four since 2001, have won the title seven times and appeared in ten finals. It's an astonishing pedigree and record of success.
2013 though didn't get off to the perfect start. The Crusaders only won three of their opening seven matches, before going on a typical surge towards the top with eight wins from their next nine with fourth place then secured.
The 43-15 thrashing of the Chiefs in Christchurch felt like a statement but proved to be a false dawn, even if the semi-final defeat was only by a single point.
It cast a shadow over what really was a successful year in which the Crusaders thrilled us with their play, making more metres than any other team with 8237.
In the five years since their last title the Crusaders have lost out to the Reds in the 2011 final, but four semi-final losses will gradually build a complex. Do they still have enough to win the big one?
This Year: Two of the Crusaders' backline talents in Robbie Fruean and Tom Marshall have both headed to the champions with Tom Donnelly moving to Auckland with the Blues, but otherwise the Crusaders' losses are hardly seismic.
Colin Slade returns from his stint with the Highlanders to make up for the sabbatical of Dan Carter, who is not expected back until much later in the season. Added to Tom Taylor and Tyler Bleyendaal, the Crusaders boast impressive depth at fly-half.
The more interesting addition however is Nemani Nadolo. Tipped for great things when he featured for the Barbarians back in 2008, the man known formerly as Ratu Nasiganiyavi has taken a few interesting turns in his career so far with Bourgoin, Exeter and finally the NEC Green Rockets in Japan. Now back in Super Rugby, the 26-year-old cousin of Tevita Kuridrani and Lote Tuqiri could make a huge impact and has been capped ten times by Fiji.
The Crusaders squad otherwise has that familiar look of assured experience and success. There are 18 All Blacks present including three IRB Players of the Year in Richie McCaw, Carter and the incumbent Kieran Read. The Crusaders are just built for silverware and no doubt thrashing through pre-season with an extra fire in their belly after the last two years.
Their schedule is also hugely favourable, only facing the Lions and Cheetahs in South Africa, but a trip to Suncorp will test them later on against the Reds. They will also avoid South Africa's best outfit in the Sharks, and get to face the Brumbies at home. It all points towards another semi-final spot - what matters is whether that game will take place in Christchurch or elsewhere.
Key Players: Set to return for the Crusaders in Round Three against the Blues, Kieran Read will add some influence. Richie McCaw's current spot in the seven jersey isn't secure with Matt Todd enjoying a good pre-season, so expect Read to captain the side. 2013 was a stellar year for Read and it'll be tough for him to match it, but he has the talent and confidence to do so. Elsewhere Zac Guildford will be looking to end his rollercoaster time in New Zealand on a high before he joins Clermont Auvergne at the end of the season, while Israel Dagg was perhaps incorrectly overshadowed by the performances of Leigh Halfpenny and Israel Folau in 2013 as he too enjoyed an excellent year.
Noteworthy Signings: Tim Perry (Blues), Mitchell Drummond (Canterbury), Colin Slade (Highlanders), Ray Lee-Lo (Hurricanes), Nemani Nadolo (NEC Green Rockets)
Noteworthy Losses: Tom Donnelly (Blues), Shane Christie (Highlanders), Robbie Fruean (Chiefs), Telusa Veainu (Rebels), Tom Marshall (Chiefs)
Prospects: True to form the Crusaders should end up in the last four, but if they are to secure the New Zealand Conference they have to get off to a better start than last year. They have the perfect chance to land a psychological blow on the Chiefs when they face them first up in Round Two at home, and with games to follow against the Blues, Stormers and Rebels before a bye that opening block will either kickstart or hinder their season. They have the squad to go all the way. Semi-finals.
Feb 21: v Chiefs, home
February 28: v Blues, away
March 8: v Stormers, home
March 14: v Rebels, away
Week 5: Bye
March 28: v Hurricanes, home
April 5: v Lions, away
April 12: v Cheetahs, away
April 19: Chiefs, away
Week 11: Bye
May 3: v Brumbies, home
May 11: v Reds, away
May 17: v Sharks, home
May 24: v Highlanders, away
May 30: v Force, home
June 28: v Hurricanes, away
July 5: Blues, home
July 12: v Highlanders, home