Crusaders usher in new era without Richie

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2013

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Tonight we get our first glimpse into a post-McCaw Super Rugby world.

With McCaw travelling the world (one of the most recent sightings was of him guffawing among David Letterman's flock in his New York studio), the Crusaders have been rehearsing for a new era.

Kieran Read is officially the new captain - the Crusaders' first new boss since Robbie Deans transferred the captain's armband from Reuben Thorne to McCaw in 2005 - and this swap brings a cocktail of nerves and anticipation for all involved.

This is not the first time McCaw has been absent. But the Crusaders don't have the psychological comfort blanket of previous years when they knew the All Blacks captain would, sooner rather than later, return from injury or an extended summer break.

There is a chance McCaw may not represent the Crusaders this season. Playing after June remains the goal but it is a very tight timeframe.

The playoffs begin on July 19 and if the Crusaders are humming and Matt Todd is proving a winner at openside flanker, coach Todd Blackadder will have to question whether he should stick with his original loose forward unit.

History shows that when players return from long absences it takes several games to get into their rhythm and McCaw is no different; like any openside flanker he could stumble into the trap of trying too hard, giving away penalties and having a detrimental impact.

The Crusaders are ushering in a new epoch for several other reasons.

Blackadder has hinted they are looking to reap more dividends from their attack, and tonight's encounter against the Blues, at Eden Park, should give an insight into this theory. Is he hinting the Crusaders will launch more strike-plays off the set pieces, resist kicking for territory inside their own half, or counter-attack without fear of reprisal from the men in the coach's box?

The appointment of assistants Tabai Matson and Aaron Mauger, who impressed Blackadder by giving the Canterbury backline a mandate to play with width and exploit space last season, indicates the Crusaders will adopt a similar ethos. Whatever the blueprint it is highly unlikely Blackadder will give his forwards a pass to withdraw from their core roles.

Even without McCaw and with fellow All Black Ben Franks now at the Hurricanes the Crusaders pack should pack a jarring punch; Todd is the only non-All Black.

It is also difficult to understate the scrutiny the Crusaders coaching staff are under as they look to win their first title since Blackadder took over in 2009.

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During that period he has always made the playoffs but is yet to win a title. He has also had a turnover of back-office staff.

Former forwards coach Mark Hammett is now with the Hurricanes, backs coach Daryl Gibson is at the Waratahs, former manager Tony Thorpe has joined the Brumbies and conditioning coaches Ashley Jones and Carl Jennings went offshore and to the Warriors respectively.

This is unquestionably Blackadder's ship. He will be anxious about making a rough start.

- The Press

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