Crusaders ready to tackle South African double
It doesn't get much tougher in Super Rugby than the Stormers-Sharks South African double, but Todd Blackadder senses the brutal road trip comes at just the right time for his resurgent Crusaders.
The seven-time champs banked their second straight bonus point victory on Saturday night at AMI Stadium when they thumped new chums the Southern Kings 55-20, seven tries to two, with a pretty comprehensive 80-minute performance.
The Crusaders tidied up the errors that blighted their opening quarter against the Bulls a week previous and produced the sort of sustained excellence that suggests they're right back on track after that wobbly old start that saw them lose back-to-back games against Kiwi rivals on the road.
It was a miniscule turnaround for the red and blacks who barely had time to inhale the victory on Saturday before they were at the airport in the early hours of Sunday morning making the long haul to the Republic.
That they're now facing the two most complete South African sides, well rested back in their home strongholds, just makes the task more interesting, reckons Blackadder.
"We're always ready for the challenge," he said. "What I'm sensing from the team at the moment is there's an enormous self-belief there. Every week we're making continual gains and we're learning and growing.
"We're not the complete package yet -- we probably won't ever be -- but we're making good gains and the guys are fast learners...this will be a good opportunity to get away, get even tighter, and critique the things we need to work on.
"We know the challenge, but it's one game at a time. The Stormers will be tough."
Blackadder was confident niggling injuries to Israel Dagg (hamstring), Owen Franks (Achilles) and Kieran Read (toe) would not take them out of the picture for the Stormers game, though Tom Taylor still needs another week to get his knee right, leaving Tyler Bleyendaal as the fill-in for Dan Carter who's staying home to be with wife Honor for the birth of their first baby.
"It's a good opportunity for Tyler. He's been playing really well for a long time. It's his chance to shine, I expect him to go in and do his job, and everyone else to do theirs.
"It's not like we're all going to down the tools and he's got to get in there and do everything. He's just got to perform his basic tasks really well, so I don't think it should be much of a shift."
Blackadder was more than content with the improvement his team showed in putting away a Kings outfit that showed plenty of willingness early against a relentless tide of Crusaders possession.
"The first 20 I thought we executed really well. We did the simple things well, and just didn't make as many errors. I thought we got into the framework really well and everyone worked bloody hard.
"They were certainly tough. They're a new team, they've got some new players, and at times they showed that a little it. But you've still got to work hard, to earn the right to go round them. It would have been easy to have been complacent, but Super Rugby is not like that. You've got to work for it."
Meanwhile hat-trick hero George Whitelock was typically nonplussed at what he figured was his first three-try haul in rugby since his school days at Feilding High.
"It's always good to have a first," he shrugged after picking up two tries in the first half and adding the third late in the game. "It's just a bit of luck, but it's good to finish off those opportunities."
Blackadder reckoned the hard-working flanker was rewarded for running excellent lines, but Whitelock was more pleased that the team had made another major move up the improvement graph.
"We're getting better week by week," he said. "It was definitely a step up from last week. We didn't start as poorly as last week, we decreased the errors which is always pleasing. Now we get on the plane and look forward to three weeks together and enjoying a tough tour."
The Crusaders meet the Stormers at Newlands next Sunday morning, NZ time.
What did you make of the 2014 Super Rugby season?