Super Rugby preview
Crusaders can overcome absence of McCaw
Greg Growden and ESPN Staff
February 14, 2013
The Crusaders' Israel Dagg is shackled by Western Force defenders, Crusaders v Western Force, Super Rugby, Christchurch, New Zealand, July 14, 2012
Israel Dagg in full flight remains a handful to contain. © Getty Images
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The Crusaders have not won the Super Rugby title since 2008, but Greg Growden goes against the flow to suggest the drought will break this season.

Last season: semi-finals, second in New Zealand conference; the seven-time champions scored more points (485) than all but the Hurricanes in 2012, while the Sharks and the Brumbies alone boasted a better defensive record. They lacked the zip of some rivals, but critics could not have carped had they beaten the Chiefs in the semi-finals to claim what would have been another home Final.

Key man: Israel Dagg enjoyed another stellar season in 2012, scoring five tries and featuring prominent in the stats for tackle busts (39), linebreaks (13), run metres (921), kick metres (2292), try assists (6), linebreak assists (5) and offloads (21). He ranks among the best 15s in the competition, and the Crusaders won't shine without a big effort from their fullback.

Rising star: Johnny McNicholl has been promoted from the wider training squad, rejecting overtures to join the Blues, after a standout season with Canterbury, the 2012 ITM Cup Premiership winners. The fullback / winger topped the list of premiership try scorers - 10 - and he should get plenty of opportunity given the Crusaders' loss of Zac Guildford and Sean Maitland.

Season preview: How do you replace Richie McCaw, the best No.7 to play the game taking a six-month sabbatical? Ben Franks, Sean Maitland and Zac Guilford are also serious losses, especially as there is the lack of recognised star quality having arrived. They will continue to play functional, structured rugby, and they will surely win more than they lose, but they might be said to look strangely vulnerable.

Greg Growden's verdict: It is dangerous to predict the Crusaders will win the title when they are without Richie McCaw, but this proud, resilient province is renowned for overcoming adversity. Few pundits believe the Crusaders are much hope after McCaw's decision to have an extended break, but they still have plenty left in the squad. There is a high level of irritation in Christchurch that the Crusaders, who have played in 10 Super Rugby Finals, haven't won the title since 2008. In wet and cold South Island, that's regarded as an unnecessary drought.

Tip: First in New Zealand conference. Finish: First overall.

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