Incredibly last year was the first time since 2001 that the Crusaders – the most successful Super Rugby team of all-time – failed to make the season-ending play-offs.
The Canterbury outfit finished on a high with three bonus-point wins however it was a case of too little too late as they missed out on a top-six place by a single point.
However with an unrivalled record throughout the history of Super Rugby, winning the competition seven times and reaching the play-offs 16 times out of 20, the Crusaders can never be underestimated.
One of the big questions this year will be how they cope with the loss of stalwarts Dan Carter and Richie McCaw as well as fellow All Black Colin Slade.
Judging by last week’s huge 74-7 defeat by Hurricanes in their final warm-up game it will be tough for the South Island franchise, but you simply can’t write off the Crusaders when the real thing gets under way this weekend.
Todd Blackadder took over the position of head coach of the Crusaders from Robbie Deans at the end of 2008, which was the last occasion they won the competition.
The former All Blacks captain has announced that this will be his last Super Rugby season with the franchise, after guiding them to two finals against the Reds in 2011 and the Waratahs in 2014.
Blackadder will also be defence coach in his final season in charge, following a reshuffle of the coaching staff as a result of Aaron Mauger’s departure to Leicester, and former Southland head coach Brad Mooar has been brought in to replace Mauger.
One to watch
At just under 20 stone, 6ft5, and with a 100m time of under 11 seconds, Nemani Nadolo is one of, if not the most, feared wingers in world rugby.
The giant Fijian winger has scored 21 tries in just 27 Super Rugby appearances, while he was the joint top scorer in his debut season in 2014 with 12 tries in just 12 starts, scoring in the final against the Waratahs.
He may be two stone heavier than Lomu in his prime, but there is a definite subtlety to his play. He has great feet for his size with the ability to step off either foot, and he has a fantastic offloading game to compliment his extraordinary power.
Nadolo also has a huge boot to match and has the ability to shut down opposition attacks with his monstrous tackling.
The 28-year-old resurrected his career in Japan and then with the Crusaders, joining them in 2014, after failed spells in France and England respectively with Bourgoin and Exeter.
He is currently Fiji’s goal kicker, and has scored 192 points in 23 appearances for the Pacific Islanders, with 33 points at the 2015 Rugby World Cup including two tries.
Marty Mckenzie is part of the Maori All Black squad and was formerly a New Zealand under-20 squad member.
He joins the Crusaders from the Chiefs, having also had Super Rugby experience with the Blues. The 22-year-old can play anywhere across the back-line but will be primarily playing at fly-half for the Crusaders.
He will compete for the number ten shirt with fellow new signings Richie Mo'unga and Ben Volavola after the franchise’s three established fly halves Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor all left for France in the close-season.
Filling Carter’s or Slade’s boots is certainly not an enviable task, however after seeing Mckenzie impress for Taranaki at fly-half last season, Blackadder believes the young 22-year-old is capable of making his mark on Super Rugby with the Crusaders.
Despite securing bonus point wins against the Hurricanes at home, and then the Blues and the Brumbies away in their final three games, the Crusaders will have been bitterly disappointed to not make the play-offs for the first time in 14 years and give Carter and McCaw the send-off they thoroughly deserved.
There were positives to take however, as they scored the most tries behind the rampant Hurricanes (56 to 58) despite having numerous injuries to key players throughout the season.
Indeed, the decision to play Carter at inside-centre, a position he has rarely played since the 2003 World Cup in Australia, was frowned upon and many believe if he had played at fly-half the Crusaders would have found their form earlier.
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