Coach: Todd Blackadder
Previous Wins: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008
Last Season: 4th
Last year the tragic earthquake in Christchurch shaped the Crusaders season. The Crusaders were in inspired form and were playing for much more than the game itself, particularly at home where they won 8 of their 9 games. I believe that they would have won the tournament hands down had they not come up against a Reds team that were playing some of the greatest rugby seen since the tournament began.
A lot has been going on at the Crusaders in the off-season, not a lot of it positive. The biggest news in my opinion is the loss of All Black sensation Sonny Bill Williams. SBW has moved to the Chiefs after he claimed that the earthquakes had unsettled him, and he revealed that he wanted to move closer to his mother in Auckland. It’s not all bad for the Crusaders though as they have plenty of quality cover for SBW in the shape of powerhouse Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Tom Marshall and Adam Whitelock; so they wont feel the hit as much as they might have.
However they will feel the pinch during the early rounds of the competition with All Black trio Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Zac Guildford all missing out through injury. Carter’s famous torn groin muscle will keep him out of training until January with Blackadder saying Carter will have extra recovery time (due to his importance) don’t expect to see Carter until mid March. Crusaders and All Black captain Richie McCaw is expected to be out of training until February after undergoing surgery on the foot that nearly jeopardized his chances of leading NZ to world cup glory. And if that wasn’t enough, Guildford will miss the Crusaders opening Super Rugby fixture against the Blues due to suspension. The 22-year-old was handed a 4 week suspension by the NZRU meaning he will miss the Crusaders’ 3 warm-up fixtures and their opening game. These are massive losses for the franchise and it will be interesting to see how they go in the opening stages of the tournament.
After it was confirmed that the Crusaders would go another season without playing at AMI Stadium it has been announced that their temporary home – Rugby League Park – will be ready and worthy of hosting such top class sports by their second home game of the season against the Cheetahs on March 24th.
Even though this side will be without three key All Blacks, underestimate them at your peril. Without those players they still have no less than 9 AB’s in their squad and have the likes of Robbie Fruean and Sean Maitland in their ranks. I do still expect the Crusaders to look strong out wide next season, with the likes of Israel Dagg, Sean Maitland and (when he returns) Zac Guildford they have plenty of finishers; and with the likes of Fruean battering his way through opposition midfields they will be a tricky team to stop when they get behind the first line.
However I think the injuries to Dan Carter and Richie McCaw are going to massively effect their form in the early parts of the season. Carter will especially be missed as there is no obvious replacement for him, and definitely nobody with his quality who can put on the 10 shirt. In the back row there is cover for McCaw with the likes of Kieran Reid, so he perhaps wont be as sorely missed.
Robbie Freuan is definitely my player to watch from Canterbury next season. He impressed me massively with his performances for them in the ITM Cup last season. In 2010 he was joint top try scorer in the cup and was named Player of the tournament in the same year. The battering ram had a tremendous Super Rugby campaign last season and now with SBW out of the picture he has a real opportunity to stake a claim for an All Blacks cap, it’s only a matter of time.
The Crusaders have 3 warm up matches prior to the beginning of the 2012 season against the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Rebels. During these games expect to see them looking for cover for Carter and McCaw. Also look for big performances from Israel Dagg who will be looking to build on a fantastic 2011, and look to see the Franks brothers looking to sure up their set piece, particularly in the scrum. Their first game of the 2012 Super 15 tournament is away at Eden Park to the Blues. I think the Blues will have too much for the Crusaders, this is the kind of game where you need all your big guns firing, the Crusaders won’t even have 3 of their big guns. They’ll be up against it.
Coach: Jamie Joseph
Previous Wins: Never won.
Last Season: 8th
Last season the Highlanders took me by surprise with 8 wins and 8 losses. After they took advantage of a Ma’a Nonu’s red card and dogged out a surprise win against the Hurricanes in the first game of the season they then went on to beat the Chiefs and the Bulls to get off to a flyer. In the middle of the season they put another good string of results together, winning 4 in a row. But ultimately a disappointing end to the season meant they missed out on a place in the play-offs with the Blues and Crusaders playing so well.
The off-season has been relatively quiet at the Highlanders in comparison to some of the other clubs in the Super 15 but there has been some activity. They have secured the vastly experienced All Black Andrew Hore, who was told that his services were no longer required by the Hurricanes so he has returned to his native Otago and signed a one-year contract with the Highlanders.
Just a month after the signing of Hore, the Southerners secured another All Black in the shape of wing Hosea Gear. When Gear missed out on a spot in the All Blacks World Cup squad it was widely suggested that he was going to leave New Zealand and look to play his rugby elsewhere but instead he has signed a one-year contract with the team based in Dunedin. It seems that Gear is looking to regain a spot in the All Black squad, with Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph saying about Gear: “he is committed to wanting to get back into the All Blacks and is excited about bringing his family down here and playing for the team." So I think we can expect to see a big effort from him in 2012 and some big performances.
But the big news in Otago is the shock arrival of James Haskell, after Highlanders Chief Executive Roger Clark claimed the move was pretty much dead in the water. Haskell has expressed a desire to play Super Rugby and claimed that it came as a complete surprise. The back rower has won 39 caps for England but you have to feel that this move to New Zealand will severely hinder his chances of gaining many more. The 6’4” dynamo is no stranger to life in Dunedin because it is where England were based during the Rugby World cup and says: “The World Cup was a great introduction to life in Dunedin for me and the quiet professional atmosphere is perfect to help me develop my game.”
The 26 year old will join the Highlanders after he has finished a period at Japanese club Ricoh Black Rams; and once he has completed a season at the Highlanders he will return to his original club London Wasps.
On the topic of the back row, this is where I expect the highlanders to be strong in 2012. They have included 7 back rowers in their 30-man squad, so even if there isn’t much strength in depth, at least there’s depth. I can’t decide if Joseph is going to throw Haskell straight into the squad, but if he does they will have a very experienced back row. Adam Thomson and Nasi Manu have a combined 85 Super Rugby appearances and a combined 63 international caps between Haskell and Thomson. This would be a very dynamic back row and one that most teams in the league would be more than happy to have.
The Highlanders midfield concerns me. It is very inexperienced, plenty of potential, but very inexperienced. I expect them to start with the most experienced centre in their squad Tamati Ellison who was capped for the All Blacks and then mysteriously left for Japan in order to secure his families financial future. He has plenty of talent but it worries me that he hasn’t played against quality opposition since he left NZ in 2010. Alongside him I expect to see the talented Siale Piutau, who has played a seasons worth of Super Rugby. I just feel that when they come up against quality midfields’ such as the one that the Chiefs now possess it will just be too much for them, and they will simply be outclassed.
Keep an eye out for All Black winger Hosea Gear in 2012. He has great potential and is a classy finisher. He is looking to make his way back into the All Blacks and after missing out on the RWC I think he feels he has a point to prove next season. There will be a massive effort from Gear next season and look for him to get involved at every opportunity and be as clinical as possible.