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Crusaders eye 8th S15 title
Wellington - The Crusaders will launch their bid for an eighth Super Rugby title, their first since 2008, when they play the Auckland-based Blues on Friday to start the tournament's third round.
The Crusaders had a bye when New Zealand and South African teams opened their campaigns last weekend, a week after the all-Australian first round.
The Canterbury-based club now belatedly joins the 2013 competition, seeking to end a title drought stretching back five years to their grand final win over the New South Wales Waratahs in the former Super 14.
Aside from their seven titles, the Crusaders have been runners-up three times and have reached the playoffs on four other occasions in the tournament's 17-year history. But recent seasons have been lean: they reached the final and lost to the Reds in 2011 and were beaten in the semifinals in three of the past four years.
The Crusaders last won the title under Robbie Deans, the current Australia coach whose replacement, Todd Blackadder, has yet to achieve his breakthrough championship.
One of the keys to their past success, the depth and quality of their playing pool, is still evident - they have included 10 All Blacks in their lineup for Friday's match at Eden Park. But that hasn't been enough in recent years to bring them an eighth title.
Before his team has played a game this season, Blackadder knows that his coaching job may be on the line.
"I know every interview I do it will be 'You have to win it this year or you are gone'," Blackadder said. "Every time I do an interview they are almost setting me up to say something.
"But my focus is to really enjoy this year. We are hell-bent on winning the title - that is what we are here to do - but instead of focusing on the outcome all the time, we are just going to focus on the day-to-day things. Last year I brought into that (looking too far ahead) and it doesn't work."
By most standards, Blackadder's record is coach is not a bad one - one final and four semi-finals appearances in five years. But that may not be enough to save him if the title eludes the Crusaders again this year.
"I know the buck stops with me," he said. "If we have a season where we just don't meet expectations and it is just not good enough I will put my hand up. I have no problem with that.
"But I am not going to get caught up in this thing where we have just got to win it. The competition is too tough, there are no guarantees."
Blackadder's opposite at the Blues, John Kirwan, finds himself in the contrasting position of having few expectations to meet. The Blues finished 12th last year in their worst-ever season and Kirwan, the former All Blacks winger and Japan and Italy coach, might be judged successful if he improves even moderately on that performance.
While the Crusaders are star-studded, led by All Blacks backrower Keiran Read, with Dan Carter at flyhalf and with seven All Blacks among their forward pack - the Blues have only a smattering of recognized international talent. New Zealand veteran Ali Williams leads the team from lock with All Blacks scrumhalf Piri Weepu at the base of a young but unproven backline.
The Blues opened their season last week with a surprising 34-20 win over the Wellington Hurricanes, a performance in which some observers detected the hand of Graham Henry, the World Cup-winning All Blacks coach who is an advisor to Kirwan.
"I think the way they backed themselves and gave license to the players, that's probably how (Henry) likes to use guys," Read said. "He's one to instill a lot of confidence in players and has his way of doing that.
"I guess with the structure they do play it allows them to showcase the talents they obviously do have. They are natural athletes. Hopefully, we can make them go a bit as individuals and away from the game plan."
Kirwan expects the Crusaders to alter their strategy of recent seasons in their pursuit of elusive success.
"For years they have won through attrition," he said. "Now they are talking and hinting about expansion.
"I think they are trying to change their game. We have seen some different stuff from them and we need to be ready for it."
In other third-round matches, the Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels meet on Friday in Sydney. The Waratahs opened their season with a loss to the Reds and need to quickly rebound to prove they are stronger title contenders than last season when they ended in 11th place.
Wallabies prop Benn Robinson returns to the Waratahs' starting lineup after being relegated to the bench for their opening match.
"Maybe sometimes he's not going to like me for (benching) him like that," coach Michael Cheika said. "But I know it's for him to be a better player.
"And he's not the only one. I have been pushing everyone like that ... to work hard and to go places they haven't been before and I'm not afraid to say that. I think it is a good thing."
The defending champion Chiefs face the Cheetahs after beating the Highlanders 41-27 in round two.
"I guess we've set a bit of a benchmark and now we've got to work hard against the Cheetahs," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "We're very fortunate even though we've got a few injuries we've got really good depth."
The Reds face the Hurricanes in the first Australia-New Zealand contest of the season, the Pretoria-based Bulls face the Force and the Durban-based Sharks host the Stormers. The Southern Kings, Highlanders and Brumbies have byes.