Gifford: Blackadder's boys send clear message

BLACK AND RED: Todd Blackadder is expected to re-sign with the Crusaders for another season.
BLACK AND RED: Todd Blackadder is expected to re-sign with the Crusaders for another season.

Israel Dagg had become a mystery to the Crusaders' coaching staff.

So brilliant at the 2011 World Cup, he was only average for the Crusaders last year, the frustration for Todd Blackadder and Co compounded by the fact they guessed, correctly, that back in black the old quicksilver Dagg would emerge.

This year he began even more erratically, to the point where Blackadder tried the final stroke available to a coach; he dropped him and made it clear his demotion for the Brumbies game wasn't rest or rotation but being benched for a lack of form.

Was Dagg upset by the move, Blackadder was asked at the time. "I certainly hope so," was the brutally honest reply.

It's taken a few weeks for the shakeup to take effect for the Crusaders, and, ironically, a major part of the Dagg revival came during his time at fullback for the All Blacks against France, but Super Rugby opponents should be warned, Dagg is back.

In the humiliation of the Chiefs there were several key elements. One of the most important was the confidence Dagg brought to the attack.

When the Crusaders have won championships, there has always been a firecracker in the backline, a man who can spark a counter-attack, or break the line in a set piece.

Back in 98, when they won their first title, the man was Norm Berryman, a Northlander so laid back he made Andrew Mehrtens look lemon-lipped.

There was the current back coach, Tabai Matson, as big as a No 8 with the dazzling footwork of a first-five, or Afato So'oialo, a tiny Samoan wing, who danced over the ground like water sizzling in a hot pan.

Until Friday night there's been a lack of that zip in the Crusaders, but a revived Dagg provided it, and the shellshocked Chiefs paid the price.

How big a setback was this game for the men from Hamilton? Bigger, I'd suggest, than the loss to the Crusaders late in last year's round robin.

In that game the Chiefs' lineout, without Craig Clarke, fell to bits, and the rest of their game went with it. But with Clarke restored to fitness they dominated the Crusaders in the return match, the semifinal. On Friday the Crusader forwards, too often sleepy and casual early in the season, sprung into full teeth-baring, eye-flaring, snorting, glaring fury at the breakdowns.

It wasn't just that the Crusaders, from the first whistle, won more breakdowns, it was that they won them so convincingly, and so quickly, compared to the laboured delivery of the Chiefs.

The ball was flying back so fast Andy Ellis, who may not now be an All Black, but is still playing like one, and then Willi Heinz, never dialled the pace of their running down from full-bore sprinting to keep up with the ball popping out behind the red and black pack.

Dave Rennie's challenge, if the Chiefs strike the Crusaders in knockout play, has escalated from 2012's technical issues with the lineout to a much broader question of dampening down the fiery attitude of the Crusaders who may have (pause for a collective shudder from Chiefs' fans) Richie McCaw on board by then.

There's a school of thought that the Crusaders play dull, percentage rugby. The first half on Friday may have supported that theory, but with hindsight it was just a softening-up phase.

In the stunning first 15 minutes after halftime there were three tries where angles were run, tacklers were stepped, and passes were crisp and accurate.

It'd be foolish to write the Chiefs off on one game, especially when the Crusaders played so well that no other team in New Zealand, probably no other team in the competition, could have stayed with them on the night.

How the Chiefs bite the big bullet of the loss will be a measure of the team. And for every other side in the competition, there's a clear message. The Crusaders are back. Be very afraid.

Sunday Star Times