The defending Vodacom Super Rugby champions Crusaders should still be favourites to retain their title on the domestic scene, writes DYLAN JACK.
The Christchurch club have been handed a draw that they can certainly make favourable as they play three of their opening five fixtures at home. They will also be sitting out the action in the first round so will not only have a few extra days to work on their fitness, but will also be able to analyse how key aspects in the competition – such as the breakdown – are going to be officiated.
This, of course, will come at the cost of heading into their first fixture against the Hurricanes in Wellington a week behind their opponents in terms of match fitness.
As far as their squad goes, the Crusaders have not only been able to retain their players from the 2020 Super Rugby season, but have added to them as well. Veteran All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock has returned to the squad after missing the Super Rugby season while playing for the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan. As the Japanese Top League season has been cancelled, Whitelock has received permission to return to Christchurch and will add to the team’s already brilliant depth at second row, with captain Scott Barrett as well as Luke Romano, Quinten Strange and Mitchell Dunshea.
The Crusaders have also welcomed Ethan Blackadder back from injury. The 25-year-old loose forward was training with the team before lockdown after recovering from a long-term shoulder injury. He can add some much-needed experience to what was a young loose trio playing in the regular season.
The Crusaders were on top of the New Zealand conference before the regular Super Rugby season was suspended, having lost just one of their six fixtures. That loss, however, came at the hands of the Chiefs – who produced a rousing comeback to win 25-15 in Hamilton after trailing 12-8 at the break.
When looking at their derby record, the Crusaders have been dominant in fixtures against the Highlanders, Blues and Hurricanes since 2011. However, the Chiefs will be expected to give the Crusaders an arm-wrestle as the Hamilton-based side currently leads that record with 11 wins to the Crusaders’ 10. They’re the only team with a positive record against the Crusaders since 2011.
The Crusaders will be looking to their star-studded backline to create havoc, especially now that there is emphasis for referees to speed the game up. Sevu Reece, George Bridge and Braydon Ennor were all in excellent form before the break with 11 tries shared between them. They were also ably backed up by 20-year-old wing Leicester Fainga’anuku, who was enjoying a fine breakout campaign with two tries in five games.
This is without mentioning that the backline also features Richie Mo’unga, David Havili, Bryn Hall, Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan.
Andrew Makalio, Brodie McAlister, Codie Taylor, Michael Alaalatoa, Harry Allan, George Bower, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Isileli Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Mitchell Dunshea, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange, Samuel Whitelock, Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Cullen Grace, Billy Harmon, Sione Havili Talitui, Ethan Roots, Tom Sanders, Mitchell Drummond, Ereatara Enari, Bryn Hall, Fergus Burke, Brett Cameron, Richie Mo’unga, Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, Dallas McLeod, George Bridge, David Havili, Inga Finau, Will Jordan, Manasa Mataele, Fetuli Paea, Leicester Faingaanuku, Sevu Reece.
21 June: vs Hurricanes, Sky Stadium Wellington
28 June: vs Chiefs, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
4 July: vs Highlanders, Forsyth Barr Stadium Dunedin
11 July: vs Blues, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
25 July: vs Hurricanes, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
1 August: vs Chiefs, FMG Stadium Waikato
9 August: vs Highlanders, Orangetheory Stadium Christchurch
16 August: vs Blues, Eden Park
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images