Craig Dowd
Crusaders' season all about 'top two inches'
Craig Dowd
March 5, 2014
Richie McCaw's injury will have a big effect on the Crusaders side, on the field and off © Getty Images

Scrum5: Brett McKay and Andy Withers ponder the cause for concern in Christchurch

It has become commonplace in New Zealand to say the Crusaders always start their campaign poorly and they will be in the play-offs by season's end. But you have to wonder after the weekend if the wheels are starting to come off Super Rugby's longest-running unit of success.

You couldn't help thinking "here we go again" when their game with the Blues started off: the Crusaders looked neat, tidy and efficient, but then the young players in the Blues side stepped up.

The Blues produced some good touches either side of half-time and showed they do have some good young fellows coming through. And as a consequence, the Blues' confidence just rose. The tries scored by Frank Halai, and the boost lock Patrick Tuipolotu put into setting up a try for Tevita Li was just what the Blues needed. You wondered after their first game, against the Highlanders, if they had the belief, but Halai, Tuipolotu and Li, and centre George Moala and first five-eighth Simon Hickey, all stood up against the Crusaders.

You wondered in the lead-up to the game if Sir John Kirwan were setting himself up for a fall by naming Hickey, but the fly-half played very well and you have to say that Kirwan has galvanised the team to the point where they could be really good. They need to back that up in South Africa over the next two weekends.

By contrast, the Crusaders started well and finished okay but left a big gap in the middle of the game through which the Blues stole away to set up the match-winning lead. Not even the Crusaders could pull that back. Missed tackles were the problem, and you can't have that happen at this level because they gave the Blues the opportunities they were seeking.

The Crusaders were left chasing shadows and clutching straws in Auckland © Getty Images

It probably comes back to selection: you take a risk when you leave a guy like All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg on the bench. His replacement, Colin Slade, missed the first tackle on Tevita Li, and Dagg would not have done that. As a result, Richie McCaw had to scramble to get the winger - and he came close - but the try came back to that first tackle being missed.

You don't get a second chance in Super Rugby, and as a result the Crusaders have put themselves in a tough position. They should beat the Stormers in Christchurch this weekend, but they will be feeling the effects of those first two losses.

The loss of McCaw to a broken hand will be hard. It is a case of where do you turn to? His presence as one of the finest players in the world has a big effect on a side, on the field and off. Younger players are left to think "we've lost our best man". Matt Todd is a good replacement. But that is what he is: a replacement for one of the greats of world rugby.

The Crusaders will go back to their set-piece, and you have to say that is in good shape. The scrum and lineout always give you something to build on, and there is not too much wrong there.

There has been a lot of talk about whether McCaw is past his best. I will say that he has achieved the peak in his career but his best at the moment is still good enough for him to be regarded as the best. He might not have the quickest times in the tests they do, and he might not lift the heaviest weights. But he is still a mighty leader and a mighty player. Like all players, he is negotiating the circle of rugby life. And while the young bucks may be circling the old stag looking for the kill, the old stag is still standing and willing for the contest.

You also have to wonder if sabbaticals have come back to haunt the Crusaders. It was McCaw last year and this year it is Dan Carter. Had Carter been playing in those first two games, the Crusaders would have won at least one. He would not have been guilty of missing several of the kicks that were not nailed. He would also have brought to the team a level of maturity that all of the other Crusaders five-eighths cannot hope to match, yet.

The Crusaders will go back to their set-piece, and you have to say that is in good shape. The scrum and lineout always give you something to build on, and there is not too much wrong there. That will be their starting point to recovery. And they have a player like hooker Corey Flynn clearly playing very well. He's got fire in his belly. He's not immediately in the All Blacks selectors' sights but he is asking questions of them and the other contenders, and so he should be.

It comes down to the top two inches for the Crusaders. A losing mentality is a rot that has to be dealt with quickly or it will set in. If this were another team we were talking about, you would write them off. But these are the Crusaders, and Christchurch people are resilient and hard. They will bounce back. But the question is: will it be soon enough in 2014?

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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