Ryan Crotty is part of the Crusaders' "guts group" - but that's got nothing to do with his waistline.
The 24-year-old is part of an experienced middle core of players in the powerful franchise upon whom coach Todd Blackadder is heaping more responsibilities this year, in an effort to get the red-and-blacks back to champion status.
It's a new initiative and one that Crotty is thriving on as the Crusaders learn to live without inspirational leader Richie McCaw, who is on his six-month sabbatical.
"It's a lot of us guys who have been there for four or five years and have got a really good feel for things. We're all pretty good mates with the young guys that are coming through, and we've been around the All Blacks and senior players for a long time as well," Crotty explains.
"There's a bit more onus on us to really step up in the leadership role in the team. We have a good feel for how the team is tracking and can offer our voice in the team environment."
The move came out of what Crotty calls a "robust review" of last year, where the seven-time champions fell at the semifinal hurdle again.
They haven't won the title since 2008, appearing in one final and three semis under Blackadder's reign.
Clearly, there is pressure to reclaim a trophy they have had a mortgage on. Crotty senses a fresh air about the squad. There are nine rookies stepping up, including five from the champion Canterbury side who won their fifth consecutive NPC title last year. That success also promoted Tabai Matson into the coaching team, along with another Canterbury great in Aaron Mauger.
"We took a lot of things out of the review on the back of last season. We were fairly brutal," Crotty said.
"We are doing things a lot better than last year. We've taken learnings out of our losses. I think you'll see a refreshed, new-look Crusaders side playing some exciting rugby.
"Tabs [Matson] and Azza [Mauger] have been around the Canterbury environment for a few years now. They are cruisy but they are really good at what they do . . . they are nailing their roles really well.
"Basically, they are a real joy to be around, and I think they've created a really good environment alongside Toddy."
Crotty says his aim is to get as much game time as possible. With Dan Carter injury-free and ready to go, there should be increased chances for Crotty in the No 12 jersey, where he forms an increasingly effective midfield partnership with big centre Robbie Fruean.
Higher honours remain a goal for both of these talented players and they know Crusaders' success is the best way to push their claims.
It's what keeps driving Crotty on, rather than looking overseas.
"I really want to win a title with the Crusaders. I've been very successful with Canterbury and that helps.
"I just love it . . . Canterbury is my home, my family is here, and this is a special franchise that just feels like home.
"I'm just really excited about the year, and I want to try to put my best foot forward for the All Blacks."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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