One year ago the Crusaders had a formidable outside back trio, consisting of Sean Maitland, Zac Guildford and Israel Dagg. Between them the three had 80 caps for the Crusaders, with Israel Dagg and Zac Guildford each having a respective 25 and 18 caps for another franchise (Dagg, Highlanders and Guildford, Hurricanes) – between the three they had amassed 190 points for the Crusaders (and that’s not counting Guildford and Daggs combined 16 tries (80 points) for the Hurricanes or Highlanders). By the end of the 2012 Super XV season all had added more tries to their tally – Sean Maitland had 23 (115 points), Zac Guildford with 19 (95 points) under his belt, and Israel Dagg had a total of 12 (60 points).
Fast forward to the start of the 2013 Super XV competition and the landscape is a lot different for the Crusaders, as far as their outside backs go. GONE is Sean Maitland (54 caps), whom unwanted by the Crusaders for 2013, took up a contract with the Glasgow Warriors, and was soon promoted to a regular starting spot on the Scotland team, for the Six Nations – where he scored a try on debut, and is now in contention for a place in the British Lions, to tour Australia. GONE is Zac Guildford, who after another off field indiscretion, stood himself down from the Crusaders, for what could potentially be the entirety of the 2013 campaign, in order to seek support and treatment for alcohol issues.
No problem – they have back up, in the form of Kurt Baker… or not, as he injured his hamstring, playing Sevens, and cannot play. Then there is Johnny McNicholl (currently injured, hoping to be back for the round 4 match v Hurricanes) – signed to the franchise after an epic 2012 ITM Cup campaign with cup winners, Canterbury. While he had an awesome season in the ITM Cup, it is well known that while going from Super XV to test match rugby is a big step up, the same can be said for going from ITM Cup level, to Super XV level. Teluesa Veainu has been called in on a short term basis, from the Highlanders – but is yet to be seen at 1st class level for the Crusaders, and with only 5 caps, doesn’t exactly bring a wealth of experience to the set up.
All is not lost – there are a couple of players with 20+ caps to their names, who could help provide a little stability and leadership to the backline (along with Israel Dagg). Adam Whitelock looks to be a regular feature amongst the outside back trio, and his 42 caps and 7 tries show that he is useful to have on the field. Tom Marshall will add to that with his 24 caps and 3 tries for the Red and Blacks… But neither are exactly up to par with Sean Maitland or Zac Guildford, are they? There is also the utility back, Tom Taylor, who provides an extra option when it comes to the fullback position. That said, he seems to excel at the #10 and #12 positions, where he has fast become a very obvious understudy to Dan Carter, having some magical performances with the boot in the 2012 season, notably against the Stormers, when he scored all the Crusaders points and won the game for them. Taylor seems as out of place at fullback, as Israel Dagg does on the wing (think 2013, round 3 v Blues… and that’s as much as I will say about that).
On paper, the Crusaders can form a competitive outside back trio – just one that in most cases is lacking in Super XV experience. Aside from Tom Marshall, Adam Whitelock and Israel Dagg, the reamining three ‘true’ outside back replacements have a total of 12 caps and 2 tries between them . The most capped outside back trio would consist of Tom Marshall and Adam Whitelock on the wings, with Israel Dagg in his rightful position at fullback. Between them, they would have an impressive enough 83 caps and 22 tries for the Crusaders between them, 12 coming from Dagg, 7 from Whitelock and 3 from Marshall – still 16 tries shy of the 38 the Maitland/Guildford/Dagg combo came into the 2012 season with.
What then happens if Dagg gets sidelined by injury, or when he’s out due to All Blacks commitments? The back line trio then misses out on the experience and presence provided by Dagg’s 3 seasons as an All Black, and there are two relatively experienced players – who will need to be teamed up with a very inexperienced (in Super XV terms) player and with another inexperienced player on the bench. What happens if both Dagg and Whitelock are out? Or Dagg and Marshall? The Crusaders will then put on the field, a back line trio with maybe 45 caps between them, depending how far into the season they are.
Teams have done it before – and I’m sure teams have had to deal with much worse, but when you are a team that is so used to a powerful, experienced, fast, point-scoring-machine outside back trio, surely that lack of experience is going to have an effect on the team and put a LOT of extra pressure on those more senior, capped players (such as Israel Dagg), and on those who perhaps wouldn’t have had to step into the leadership role quite so early, under normal circumstances. As a Crusaders supporter I am personally rather nervous about what this season holds for the team – obviously there is more to a team than three players/positions, however when a bulk of your tries (40% in 2012) are scored by your outside backs, the thought of a lack of experience in that vital back line role, is rather daunting.
As a fanatical Crusaders fan, all I can say is please, please, PLEASE don’t let the Crusaders of 2013, be the Blues of 2012.