Knowler: Crusaders more than a shot at title
Qualifying for the Super Rugby semifinals will mean much more for the Crusaders than just having a shot at another title.
For starters there is the money. Attracting sponsors or commercial partners is much easier when the team is performing. Everyone likes to be associated with winners.
Being successful also empowers the Crusaders as they go to the player market ahead of next year's tricky campaign.
Top teams attract talent, but nabbing the best, and getting the chemistry right, is an exacting exercise.
This will be crucial ahead of a World Cup year when many established All Blacks will, unwittingly or otherwise, be focusing on the World Cup.
Signing Nemani Nadolo from Japanese club NEC Green Rockets this year has proved one of the most inspired deals brokered by any Super Rugby team, and the Fijian dreadnought's declaration he will return next season is massive.
The competition's second-highest tryscorer (10) behind Israel Folau (12), Nadolo has played a major role in the Crusaders' blistering run into the playoffs.
Five-eighth Dan Carter, who has returned from his sabbatical motivated to off irrational talk he is washed up, adds a mountain of experience, defensive grit and class to the attack but lacks the raw power of the menacing 125kg Fijian international.
Coach Todd Blackadder, whose contract runs through to 2016, must be hunting for another powerful ball carrier to complement Nadolo in 2015.
New Zealand coaches understand the importance of having Pacific power out wide.
Patrick Osborne (Highlanders), Julian Savea and Alapati Leiua (Hurricanes), Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Chiefs), Frank Halai, Charles Piutau, George Moala and Lolagi Visinia (Blues) and Nadolo (Crusaders) are examples.
It's understood the Crusaders were interested in signing centre Malakai Fekitoa last year but the Highlanders hit the jackpot instead.
Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell, who played rugby for Auckland Grammar, was another potential midfielder the Crusaders held discussions with several seasons ago, but he elected to stay in the NRL.
Last year Savea considered a move to Christchurch but re-signed with the Hurricanes.
Former All Blacks wing Hosea Gear, who will play in Japan after finishing with French club Toulouse, is looking for a Super Rugby home as he tries to force his way back into the World Cup squad, and it would be surprising if the Crusaders haven't sounded him out.
Centre Richard Kahui, who also played on the wing during the World Cup - but is equally comfortable at centre - is also looking to return.
The Crusaders also signed Junior Warriors wing Viliami Lolohea on a two-year deal, hoping to ease him into the 15-man code through club rugby in Tasman and later their development side.
But Lolohea injured his knee badly and won't be sighted until next year.
Not all recruits have been as spectacular as Nadolo. The Crusaders re-signed Zac Guildford on a one-year deal and it blew up in their faces.
The signing of midfielder Reynold Lee-Lo - a player they hoped would provide something different with his ability to offload in the tackle - on a two-year deal, has yet to pay dividends and Blackadder will hope he rediscovers his confidence when he returns to Counties-Manukau.
The same goes for Tom Taylor, who has been a shadow of the player who was good enough to make his All Blacks debut against the Wallabies in Wellington last year and kicked 14 points in the 27-16 victory.
Getting shunted around the Crusaders backline - he has filled four different positions - means his confidence has been replaced by uncertainty.
The contribution of versatile midfielder Ryan Crotty, the only Crusader to start all 16 matches, and among the top linebreakers in the competition, cannot be overstated.
Crotty has been a rock this year, and complementing him with a hard-running No 13, which would allow Carter to return to his favoured first-five slot, would be desirable for next year.
The departure of Corey Flynn, George Whitelock, Tyler Bleyendaal and Guildford should free up some money for a franchise that struggles to get under the salary equalisation threshold set by the New Zealand Rugby Union.
Winning their first title since 2008 would be the perfect way for the Crusaders to convince a marquee player to sign for what they hope will be a title defence.