Crusaders' new dynasty just beginning
SUPER RUGBY PREVIEW 2018 - TEAM BY TEAM: In the sixth instalment of our 15-part build-up to the season we look at the Crusaders. It will be followed by the rest of the New Zealand teams and then the Australian conference.
When you walk into the Crusaders players' gym at Rugby Park, championship banners along the back wall stare down at you.
They have enough to cover half the length of the gym - a constant reminder to current players of the past success that the team is built on.
The 2017 banner will be the first past halfway on that wall - proud work of the current squad and symbolic of the beginning of a new Crusaders era. It's been a long time between drinks for Super Rugby's most successful franchise - at least in terms of what they were used to - the Crusaders eighth championship season in 2017 has been 9 years in the making.
In between, the perennial finalists lost two grand finals to Australian sides, watched the Chiefs win twice after losing back-to-back semi-finals to them and suffered their worst season result since 2001 losing seven times missing the playoffs in 2015.
The year 2017 was the return of the Crusaders, but this could be the dawn of a new dynasty with 2018 shaping up as another championship season.
The roster is primed with experience, with arguably the best tight five in the competition. The depth in the front row is outstanding - Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Mike Alaalatoa to name a few. When All Black prop Wyatt Crockett is coming off the bench, you know your front row stocks are strong.
With Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and Scott Barrett they have a formidable second row, and experienced loose forwards Kieran Read, Jordan Taufua and Matt Todd round out a world-class pack.
Before last year's championship season, there were concerns over their age - these were proven to be overblown. The experience and toughness of this pack are invaluable assets that led the team to 14 straight victories last season.
The Crusaders have youth in all the right places, uncovering gems in centre Jack Goodhue and wings George Bridge and Manasa Mataele last year while fullback David Havili earned an All Blacks call-up.
With the addition of New Zealand Under-20 star fullback Will Jordan and wing Braydon Ennor, expect more young stars to emerge this season.
The value the Crusaders put on experience is obvious, bringing in 35-year-old first-five Mike Delaney after an age-defying season with Bay of Plenty and the calm presence of 30-year-old centre Tim Bateman.
The franchise seems to find advantages by exploring every possible option. They experimented with ex-Wallaby Digby Ioane last season, as well as bringing in Chiefs centre Seta Tamanivalu, turning him into a solid contributor on the wing. Don't bet against this year's signings paying off.
The Crusaders best-kept secret is no more, with the emergence of first-five eighth Richie Mo'unga as a genuine threat to Beauden Barrett's place as New Zealand's best No.10.
History shows since 2010 every Super Rugby winning team had a No.10 aged between 23-26. Even All Black legend Dan Carter - who played for the Crusaders until 33 - won his last title at age 26.
The 23-year-old Mo'unga became the latest name on that list and is only just entering the sweet spot for Super Rugby first-fives. This is a big reason to back the Crusaders this year, Mo'unga is going to get better heading into his third season.
The team weren't widely expected to win the title in 2017. That title was a bonus in Scott Robertson's first year at the helm and the team will be hungry for more success.
The Crusader's toughest competition in the New Zealand conference will be the Hurricanes - the only Super team to beat them last year - and they will know it. The Canes might be the only side between the Crusaders and back-to-back titles.
New Zealand Conference Placing: First
Player of the Year: Richie Mo'unga
Rookie of the Year: Will Jordan
Best Signing: Mike Delaney
Breakout Player: Pete Samu
Super Rugby Placing: Champions
Best finish: Champions in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2017
Worst finish: Twelfth in 1996
In: Ethan Blackadder (Tasman), Mike Delany (Bay of Plenty), Braydon Ennor (Canterbury), Billy Harmon (Canterbury), Will Jordan (Tasman), Tom Sanders (Chiefs), Jack Stratton (Canterbury).
Out: Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Manawatu), Jed Brown (Canterbury), Whetu Douglas (Treviso), Sione Fifita (Counties Manukau), Vernon Fredericks (Tasman), Leon Fukofuka (Auckland), Digby Ioane (Wild Knights), Marty McKenzie (Chiefs), Sean Wainui (Taranaki).
Squad: Ben Funnell, Andrew Makalio, Codie Taylor, Mike Alaalatoa, Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Scott Barrett, Mitchell Dunshea, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange, Sam Whitelock, Ethan Blackadder, Billy Harmon, Kieran Read, Tom Sanders, Pete Samu, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Mitchell Drummond, Bryn Hall, Jack Stratton, Mike Delany, Mitchell Hunt, Richie Mo'unga, Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge, Israel Dagg, David Havili, Will Jordan, Jone Macilai, Manasa Mataele, Seta Tamanivalu.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass
* Don't miss the rest New Zealand Conference and also the Australian conference in the coming weeks.