Crusaders are ready for tough times ahead

ON THE BREAK: Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg caused the Western Force plenty of problems.
ON THE BREAK: Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg caused the Western Force plenty of problems.

Accuracy on attack remains a concern. Otherwise, though, after seven wins from their last eight games, the Crusaders couldn't ask for much more at this stage of the season.

As usual, the red-and-blacks' finals' fortunes will depend heavily on the injury and fatigue toll stemming from the All Blacks three test series against England next month.

Todd Blackadder is again expected to contribute the most players - nine compared with the Hurricanes' eight, Blues' six, Chiefs' five and Highlanders' three - to the 31-man national squad named today.

Countering any personnel or motivation losses, when Super Rugby resumes after a month-long hiatus, could pose problems, though a one-off match against England in Christchurch offers a chance to maintain standards and refocus other squad members.

"We've been facing those challenges for a number of years now," Blackadder said after his side's 30-7 win over the Western Force on Friday.

"We believe we've got a really good squad and some good depth and that's showing at the moment."

Atop the New Zealand conference, Blackadder's men are well placed to mount a title charge. A Crusaders outfit in control of their destiny is a dangerous beast.

"There was a huge shift tonight," said Blackadder. "Last year we ground out a game and seemed really tired and lethargic. The difference is there's a lot of energy and excitement. The intent is really genuine."

Missing the chance to secure a crucial bonus point, however, could come back to haunt them, with three tough Kiwi derbies against the Hurricanes (away) and Blues and Highlanders at home to finish.

Conceding 22 turnovers often killed their impetus and they are still guilty of throwing away too much possession, making 41 kicks and only reclaiming two of those.

"We had opportunities and we probably left a point out there but the main thing was we got the win and the guys turned up with the right mindset so that was a pass mark."

Israel Dagg is warming into his work nicely. Following last week's match-saving tackle against the Highlanders, the All Blacks fullback set-up Johnny McNicholl's opening strike with a well-timed incision and slick offload.

He moved quickly to quell fears around his injured shoulder, having left the field in the 68th minute, and also summed up the at times frustrating evening.

"The shoulder is fine," he said. "It was just a little bit of a cork and the quad is a little bit sore, too, but nothing major.

"We probably let a few tries slip that we could have nailed but the boys dug deep and ground it out.

"We wanted to go into the break with a win. We let one slip a couple of weeks ago [against the Sharks] so we wanted to nail this one.

"We're a bit gutted we didn't get that four try bonus but we'll take the four points. It's simple errors, probably individual skill sets that are letting us down but other than that we're pretty happy."

Another to impress this season has been Jordan Taufua. The now-Counties Manukau blindside flanker, who earned his chance through Tasman, has added a different dynamic to the Crusaders loose-forward trio since displacing George Whitelock.

Punishing defence; strong go-forward and steals at the breakdown have been regular features of his work.

"He's taken every opportunity," Blackadder said. "He's certainly brought some physicality. He's a very down to earth young man and has a lot more to give."

Sunday News