Phil Gifford: Crusaders can start thinking about another Super Rugby victory parade

Crusaders playmaker Richie Mo'unga slices through the Chiefs defence on Friday.
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Crusaders playmaker Richie Mo'unga slices through the Chiefs defence on Friday.

OPINION: No need to whisper it any more. If you live in Canterbury it's time to get ready to party like it's 1998.

Time to stop yearning for the excitement of the '98 Crusaders win over the apparently invincible Auckland Blues. Good times are here again.

Time to think about how much fun the '98 victory parade was, when Christchurch traffic officials estimated 100,000 people packed Colombo St, a bigger crowd than the annual Santa parade drew. Get out your walking shoes.

Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue makes a break against the Chiefs in Suva on Friday.
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Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue makes a break against the Chiefs in Suva on Friday.

Time to also take 2017 coach Scott Robertson very, very seriously indeed.

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Robertson has proved that having a bit of fun and winning big rugby games are not mutually exclusive.

Damian McKenzie soars above David Havili in the Chiefs v Crusaders blockbuster in Fiji.
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Damian McKenzie soars above David Havili in the Chiefs v Crusaders blockbuster in Fiji.

It's true the man they call Razor is cut from different cloth to any other New Zealand rugby coach. No matter how I wrack my brain, I can't think of another New Zealand coach who would break dance to celebrate title victories.

But as much fun as the side shows are, don't be distracted from his concrete achievements. 

The stunning defence that closed down the Barrett brothers last weekend, that pressured the Chiefs so much in Suva Aaron Cruden, who set a gold standard for first-five play in the first half, was largely reduced to  aimless kicking and indecision in the second, those defensive patterns were down to Robertson.

Defence was his speciality as a loose forward, and he's the one in the Crusaders' coaching team who devises the methods that have now seen his team nullify two terrific backlines, from the Hurricanes and the Chiefs.

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In '98, coach Wayne Smith put together a Crusaders side that was, in the words of Smith's captain, Todd Blackadder, "a team of nobodies, with elder statesmen in the front row, two skinny locks, held together by skinny loose forwards."

Robertson and his back specialists, Leon MacDonald and Brad Mooar, have worked the same sort of miracle with the 2017 backline.

If Ryan Crotty recovers from the concussion he suffered in Suva he would have to be one of the first backs picked for the All Blacks to face the Lions. Do football brains, courage, technique and coolness under pressure ring a bell? You're right. Comparing Crotty to the wonderful Conrad Smith is entirely reasonable.

But what's really remarkable is how the well the rest of the backline, not exactly loaded with household names, has shaped up.

Honesty call? Unless you're family, would you have tipped George Bridge as the standout three-quarter he is in 2017? Would you have predicted that David Havili would be running second in metres gained in the whole of super rugby?

At first-five Richie Mo'unga, who looked highly promising last year, has improved to the stage where you can almost see the neon sign saying "Future All Black" blinking above him every time he takes the field.

And as well as the backline has functioned, an even bigger strength for the Crusaders this year has been the forward pack.

It's stacked with All Blacks, but recent years have shown, especially against a big, grumpy, scrappy, skilful outfit like the Chiefs, big names alone don't guarantee success.

"Forwards," an All Black halfback Lin Colling once said, with only a slight smile, "are like sheep. You need to bark at them, and sometimes they need a bite." Rousing the inner beast in the Crusaders' All Black forwards hasn't always been an easy job.

People near to the Crusaders say that current forward coach Jason Ryan hasn't been afraid to play the bad cop to Robertson's good cop, and the results, whether in the technical near perfection at scrum and lineout time, or the fervour at breakdowns, has been outstanding.

The relatively comfortable win over the Canes, and the more hard fought victory over the Chiefs, were both built on outstanding forward play.

When shoo-in All Black picks like Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks are playing like fringe selections, desperate to make an impression, you know the formula Ryan and Robertson are using is right.

The disgraceful set-up of super rugby, that, in case it still seems too insane to be believed, really, truly, honestly, does see the Lions play not one New Zealand side in round robin play, means there's a possibility the Lions could finish ahead of the Crusaders come mid-July when the knockout section's draw is decided.

But don't put away the flags and bunting in Christchurch. We now know this Crusaders team is so good even the dipsticks who run Super Rugby won't stop them winning this year.

***

Every tribute being paid to Wayne Smith this week is well earned.

He's been an outstanding rugby coach, from when he set the Crusaders on the way in the 1990s, to his crucial contributions to two World Cup All Black victories.

But, having known him since the 1980s, I can vouch for what I think is an even more important fact. There has never been a more ethical person involved with the game in this country.

 - Stuff

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