One hard hurdle remains
Serving-up the perfect game plan has never been so crucial for Scott Robertson, the rookie coach who is just 80 minutes away from Super Rugby heaven.
Crusaders coach Robertson is optimistic No 8 Kieran Read and tighthead prop Owen Franks can play the final against the Lions in Johannesburg, the two All Blacks were replaced during the 27-13 semifinal win over the Chiefs because of knee and Achilles tendon complaints, providing him the chance up to start 10 internationals for the match at Ellis Park next Sunday morning (NZT).
So that is very good news. Now Robertson has to formulate a strategy that maximises their talent and experience, to ensure the Crusaders can claim their first title in nine years.
Because the vagaries of the competition format prevented the Lions from playing the Crusaders this season, Robertson has an empty file in terms of having any first-hand experience of coaching against the South African side.
Instead he must rely on footage of the Lions’ 44-29 win over the Hurricanes in their semi at Ellis Park, while also accepting there cannot be a repeat of the way the Chiefs were able to deny his side almost 70 per cent of possession and territory at AMI Stadium last Saturday night.
Call it mental toughness or just sheer bloodymindedness, but the fact the Crusaders were able to score four tries while feeding off such meagre scraps against such a quality side was remarkable.
Robertson has moulded his lot into a bunch of fighters who don’t know how to squeal; his job, now, is to deliver a blueprint that brings them the greatest prize of the lot.
And that means not giving the ball away so easily, as they did against the Chiefs.
‘‘We have got to look at ourselves,’’ Robertson acknowledged. ‘‘They had a great game plan to hold the ball for long periods of time, and we probably can’t do that again next week against another team for that period of time.
‘‘We have to be better around our game plan.’’
Robertson, having watched openside flanker Matt Todd lead the defence by making a brainblistering 22 tackles, simply cannot afford to allow his men to get sucked into such a war of attrition against the Lions.
If the Crusaders are again forced to make in excess of 200 tackles, they will simply run out of gas in Jo’burg’s thin air.
Getting the kicking game right at Ellis Park will be a priority. Long kicks to Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie simply gave the wee dynamo a chance to counterattack and allow his side to hold the ball for long periods. Do that against the Lions, and the Crusaders will be toast.
The enormity of the job at Ellis Park cannot be understated, and even if Robertson can wring just 40 minutes out of Read and Franks it will be a bonus.
Read left AMI Stadium when he ‘‘tweaked’’ a knee in the final minutes, meaning the Crusaders had to play out the game with just 14 men, but despite some swelling in the leg Robertson was confident enough to name him in his travelling squad .
The same goes for Franks. He was replaced at halftime because his Achilles tendon, which has been giving him some grief in recent months, had started to ache during the halftime break and Mike Alaalatoa replaced him for whole second half.
Another tighthead prop, Oli Jager, is travelling with squad as insurance.
For captain Sam Whitelock, who replaced Read as club captain this year, a win over the Lions would secure him his first Super Rugby title.
‘‘He is relentless in his work ethic, uncompromising and really clear with the boys and what he wants off the field,’’ Robertson said in reference to Whitelock. ‘‘Most importantly, he plays well every week.’’
Seta Tamanivalu (left) and Israel Dagg scored telling tries for the Crusaders against the Chiefs in Christchurch on Saturday night to ensure they qualified for the Super Rugby final.