Big boost for Crusaders ahead of Chiefs clash
Even with Richie McCaw still on the casualty list, the Crusaders' self-belief has received a terrific jolt ahead of Saturday night's match against the Chiefs.
Yesterday's 52-31 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, in which Colin Slade contributed 25 points and Nemani Nadolo three tries, wasn't flawless but it has done something the sports shrinks and expensive training equipment cannot.
The Crusaders' confidence levels have hit the high-tide mark; whereas a defeat at Free State Stadium would have been a major setback, they can now prepare for the Chiefs knowing they are still capable of delivering a heavyweight punch.
Even with flanker McCaw unexpectedly scratched from the Hamilton fixture, the Crusaders head to Waikato Stadium, the scene of last year's frustrating Super Rugby semifinal loss, knowing they are good enough to be the only team to sweep through South African unbeaten this season.
And, given the closeness of this competition, any information that can bolster a side's self-confidence counts for plenty.
After having a screw inserted in the thumb he damaged against the Blues on February 28, McCaw had targeted the Chiefs fixture as his comeback match. It won't happen.
"It's just taken a little bit longer [to heal]; he hasn't reinjured it or done anything silly," Blackadder said in reference to McCaw.
"It just hasn't healed as fast as initially thought it would. It's just all part of it. The good news is that he is going to be back in a couple of weeks."
Blackadder has reason to revel in Matt Todd's efforts at No 7 in the absence of McCaw.
Todd's effort against the Cheetahs, in which he kept digging for turnovers, ran smooth support angles and nudged a grubber through for Israel Dagg's try, was his best of the season. Although lock Sam Whitelock was named man of the match, Todd was the glue that kept things together.
"Matt Todd is playing so well it would be hard to deny him a starting spot on his form and also, too, Richie has played in other positions before in the past," Blackadder noted. "We'll just cross that bridge when we come to it."
Whitelock's aerial work on the opposition's throws and rugged attitude indicates he is finally approaching top gear and his battle against fellow All Blacks second rower Brodie Retallick this weekend will be eagerly anticipated.
The Crusaders have also finally proved they are capable of scoring tries and counter-attacking off turnovers; the presence of the leviathan wing Nadolo gives opponents something to worry about.
Nadolo was too quiet in the opening 40 minutes but as the game loosened up and the Cheetahs kept making turnovers, the big Fijian international prospered.
When they left New Zealand a fortnight ago the Crusaders were a team under siege. Their 2-3 record was unconvincing and they hadn't gone through South Africa unbeaten since 2008 when Robbie Deans was coach.
The win in Bloemfontein was the first since 2007.
"There were some crucial questions we asked of ourselves a couple of weeks ago and what we needed to do and was the belief factor there?" Blackadder said.
"The trip has been very timely for us ... We have stripped back and prioritised what we needed to do to win these games and got rid of any clutter."