All Blacks to benefit from epic crusade
Huw Turner
July 11, 2011

Well, the crusade finally came unstuck with the failed siege of Brisbane, but perhaps the inaugural Super Rugby season will always be remembered for the exploits of the Cantabrians. Harsh on the Reds, who reinvented themselves playing a mix of irresistible expansive rugby, backed up by fierce defence. But the Crusaders' season was bizarre, their home base smashed by a succession of earthquakes which changed life forever in that part of the world.

Amongst all the rubble, the playing fortunes of the region's professional rugby franchise could be considered inconsequential. Except that Todd Blackadder and his men did not see it like that, identifying themselves as symbols of fortitude in the face of adversity and approached their task as the ultimate test of their spirit, fortitude and endurance. Whilst they will see defeat in the final as a failure, there is much unfinished business in 2011 and All Blacks coaches Henry, Smith and Hansen may yet be the beneficiaries of the Crusaders' unbreakable focus.

The All Blacks squad announced by Henry for the forthcoming Tri-Nations contains few surprises but some surprising omissions. Whilst this squad will form the nucleus of the side to contest the Rugy World Cup, it is hard to see how the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu and Cory Jane, if fit, could be excluded come September. Perhaps this simply illustrates the strength in depth available to Henry.

Canterbury's Colin Slade emerges as clear favourite to understudy Dan Carter. Whilst this is undoubtedly a blow to the Hurricanes' young Aaron Cruden, time is clearly on his side. He will still be a young man come 2015, by which time Carter will have long departed the scene. Other unlucky omissions include the Crusaders' Robbie Fruean and Sean Maitland, power and pace respectively, but with the return to form and fitness of Zac Guildford and the Chiefs' Richard Kahui, this was always likely to pose a difficult selection issue for the selectors. The Blues' Rene Ranger, a Test debutant in 2010, and a potent attacking force on the wing or in midfield, has his supporters and would find an automatic place in many Test sides around the world - but not in this All Blacks squad.

However, there are sufficient injury doubts around the likes of Israel Dagg and Isaia Toeava and enough fierce rugby coming up throughout August to suggest that any members of the fringe back-up group could yet be employable come September. Joe Rokocoko's omission seems to spell the end of his Test career, but the writing on that particular wall has been so long displayed that it was beginning to fade. Andy Ellis' commanding Super Rugby form seems to have him ahead in the race for the No.9 jersey, but never underestimate the combative, competitive qualities of either Jimmy Cowan or Piri Weepu. There is clearly going to be a colossal struggle between Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams for the berth alongside Dan Carter. Williams' threat is so unique and the measures required to counter him so draining of defensive resources that he is fast emerging as a likely World Cup starter.

"The task of coaches Henry, Smith and Hansen, in World Cup year, will be to harness those skills and then allow skipper McCaw to demand of his men the unbreakable resilience so admired in his Crusaders squad in 2011."

The return of the other Williams, Ali, to the All Blacks' ranks was inevitable once his fitness had been proven during the Super Rugby campaign. There will still be concerns about his ability to sustain his performance through a World Cup but he is a crucial figure in Henry's plans, always plays his best football at Test level and considerably strengthens the All Blacks' locking resources. The absence of the injured Anthony Boric gives Taranaki's Jarrod Hoeata his opportunity. It will be interesting to see how Henry deploys him in the weeks ahead.

The power and technique of the Crusaders' front row, allied to the Test experience of Auckland's Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu, sees the All Blacks' well-resourced in that department. A front row of Woodcock, Mealamu and Owen Franks is both formidable and mobile. In the back-row it is simply a question of who backs up McCaw, Read and Kaino. Both Waikato's Liam Messam and Otago's Adam Thomson are blindside flankers with the mobility and skills to play on the openside so their versatility and utility is preferred to the specialist opensiders like Auckland's Braid brothers and Canterbury's Matt Todd. That is tough on all three, the younger Braid and Todd, in particular, but another indicator of All Blacks strength.

As ever, the All Blacks are able to field a squad of formidable athleticism, pace and skill. The task of coaches Henry, Smith and Hansen, in World Cup year, will be to harness those skills and then allow skipper McCaw to demand of his men the unbreakable resilience so admired in his Crusaders squad in 2011. If they can do that then the All Blacks will be difficult to beat at home.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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