Once-great Crusaders are losing their aura

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:00 13/03/2013

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OPINION: Some braver souls are whispering it in the corners of Canterbury bars. Is this the start of the end? Is one of the greatest sports franchises in history nearing the end of the era? Is this the last crusade?

It happens to all the great teams eventually. If the one certainty about life is death, then the one certainty about success is failure. When I was growing up it seemed like Liverpool Football Club, indomitably red like the Crusaders, would never lose.

Now Liverpool are barely the third-best team in the northwest of England. They don't play the big games in Europe any more. They scrabble from manager to manager. Visiting players pass under the famous sign "This is Anfield" with scarcely an upward glance. All that history is now exactly that - history.

And so it is hard not to wonder if the greatest rugby team - below international level - is not headed for the retirement home. Of course the Crusaders have started seasons poorly before. In 1998 they lost three of their first four games and went on to win their first title. In 2004 they lost their opening two matches and went on to reach the final.

But this feels different for several reasons. Firstly, the fear factor seems to have gone. All great teams have an edge before the match even starts. In the back of their mind the opposition expect to lose. When the Patriots or the Chicago Bulls were at their peak, they won a lot of matches because their opponents were daunted.

It has been the same with the Crusaders over the years. In 2002 the Crusaders went through the season unbeaten, yet they won half their games by seven points or less. But that edge in tight matches is no longer there, certainly not against the New Zealand sides.

The Hurricanes would never have won last Friday's match in seasons past. And, to put it another way, the Crusaders certainly would not have lost it. When they went 28-19 ahead after 61 minutes, the old Crusaders would have throttled the life out of the opposition. Game over.

But this year it is still very much game on. The Crusaders have only won one of their last five Super Rugby matches against New Zealand opposition. They have lost to the Canes twice, the Chiefs and the Blues. The rest of New Zealand has caught up and, in the case of the Chiefs, gone past.

The next big issue for the Crusaders is the player exodus. Sonny Bill Williams went to the Chiefs and then to league. Brad Thorn is with the Highlanders. Ben Franks is with the Canes. Richie is on sabbatical. Dan Carter is poised to leave at the end of the season. Sean Maitland is in Scotland and Zac Guildford is in rehab. No team could lose that much talent and not diminish.

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McCaw is the biggest loss, both as a player and as a captain. Matt Todd has been talked up, but he did not look the part on Friday. He was caught offside on several occasions and he twice turned over prime attacking positions.

But even more evident was the fact that the Crusaders had lost their grip on the ref. McCaw commands respect and several referees are intimidated by him. That has gone and the Crusaders were pinged against the Canes. The law emphasis on defenders not rolling towards the halfback in the ruck has also limited the Crusaders' ability to slow down opposition ball.

Now I know that the good folk of Canterbury will be outraged by the repeated suggestion that their team has been known to cheat on occasion, but it is a fact of sporting life. The better the team, the more adept it tends to be at manipulating the laws to its advantage and controlling the ref. In 1997 the Crusaders were victims of an illegal and cynical Robin Brooke shoulder charge, but like all great teams, they learned quickly, just like the Chiefs in recent months.

Questions must also be asked of Todd Blackadder. He has been the Crusaders' head coach for a long time and he has won nothing. McCaw is a fan and cites Blackadder as a big influence on his captaincy. But how good is the old silverback as a strategist?

The idea of putting Israel Dagg on the wing against the Blues was a disaster. We hear that the Crusaders are going to open out this season and play a more attacking style. But this seems a case of losing to the Chiefs/Blues/Canes (and maybe even the Highlanders) at their own game. Having a wing come on as a replacement on Friday and try to throw a cutout pass in midfield cost the Crusaders the game. And they are missing Guildford's ability to cut an angle.

The less tangible issue in all of this is the effect of the earthquake. The Crusaders squad invested a huge amount of emotional and physical energy in the 2011 season. There has to be a come-down period from that and we may be seeing that now.

All of this makes the upcoming game against the Bulls crucial. The Crusaders put the South African side away in the playoffs last season and they may still hold a bit of fear factor over the boys from the veldt. It is a must-win game, because in a couple of weeks the Crusaders travel to South Africa for matches against the Stormers and Sharks.

I expect the Crusaders to win on Saturday evening because great teams don't die overnight. But when the coach starts to ask his players to bring "a different mindset", you just wonder if an era is coming to an end.

- Fairfax Media

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