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Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Super Super Rugby
The Lions are taking on one of the best clubs in the world tomorrow
Scott Robertson’s Crusaders have been in sublime form this year.

Murray Kinsella reports from Christchurch

FOR ANYONE WHO has been watching the Crusaders closely this season, Saturday will be an exciting day.

While the Christchurch-based franchise have the kind of strengths up front that are more readily associated with Northern Hemisphere clubs, they are currently the best that the Southern Hemisphere has to offer.

Matt Todd and Quinten Strange celebrate winning the match with drop goal kicker Mitch Hunt Photosport / John Davidson/INPHO The Crusaders are in fine shape ahead of tomorrow's clash. Photosport / John Davidson/INPHO / John Davidson/INPHO

Scott Robertson’s men have swept all before them in Super Rugby this season – winning in dramatic circumstances when things have been tight – and now we get the opportunity to see them pitted against the very best Northern Hemisphere players, albeit in the form of the Lions.

Saracens are an impressive unit in Europe, of course, but right now the Crusaders have every right to call themselves one of the best clubs in the world.

Their rich history – they have a record seven Super Rugby titles – has sometimes seemed like a burden but under the energetic and downright fun coaching of Robertson, this group of players looks like it could go on to write a new chapter.

And it’s not just about incredibly incisive attack. The Crusaders have that in buckets, but this side also possesses set-piece intelligent and grunt, as well as an outstanding defence that has smothered teams as good as Beauden Barrett’s Hurricanes this year.

We pride ourselves on our defence, being physical, getting off the line,” says fullback Isreal Dagg, an All Black of 61 caps. “The Lions are bringing a lot of linespeed, but hopefully we can match it this weekend and get up and put pressure on them.”

As is the way in New Zealand, defence is primarily seen as a means to get the ball back and score on turnover possession, where the Crusaders are as clinical as their fellow Kiwi Super Rugby sides.

The likes of unheralded wing George Bridge and inside centre David Havili – who has been sensational at fullback but shifts to 12 tomorrow to accommodate Dagg – will be chief among the threats to the Lions in this regard, as will the ultra-dynamic Seta Tamanivalu.

Outside centre Jack Goodhue is an All Black in waiting at 21 and his defensive game is sublime, while he will also run intelligent lines off out-half Richie Mo’unga, who has the kind of pace and breaking threat that needs attention.

Richie Mo'unga with Cheslin Kolbe Photosport / John Davidson/INPHO Richie Mo'unga will be a huge threat to the Lions. Photosport / John Davidson/INPHO / John Davidson/INPHO

The strengths of the Crusaders’ All Black tight five are better known, though it will be intriguing to see how the Lions go against their maul and scrum, which have been excellent in Super Rugby.

Elements like this are what make this match-up so exciting. Will the Lions have too much strength in their pack for the Crusaders? Will the Kiwi side’s counter-attack be as effective against a side of Test players?

The perception is that there’s not a huge awareness of Northern Hemisphere rugby in this part of the world, but the Crusaders believe they’ve got good knowledge of what’s coming their way on Saturday.

Northern Hemisphere teams like a kick so we’re going to prepare for that,” said Dagg. “We had a WhatsApp message on Wednesday night saying to prepare for that.”

And with Conor Murray coming into the Lions team this weekend, the Crusaders see him as a key man in this area.

“He’s pretty good,” said Dagg. “We’ve played him a couple of times with Ireland. They love a contestable. As an outside back that’s where we pride ourselves; getting up high, taking those balls, nullifying those box kicks.

“It’s a great opportunity. Whoever dominates the air is going to win it.”

The charismatic and open Robertson says he and his fellow coaches are avid followers of Northern Hemisphere rugby, with Pro12 and Premiership games screened on The Rugby Channel in New Zealand.

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Scott Robertson Photosport / Martin Hunter/INPHO Scott Robertson is in his first year as a Super Rugby coach. Photosport / Martin Hunter/INPHO / Martin Hunter/INPHO

“There’s nothing new in rugby, it’s all a little bit of plagiarism, it’s slightly tweaked to your group,” says the former All Blacks back row, who had a stint with Ards RFC in Ireland before going on to play Test rugby.

“We’re all sharing ideas and we understand the quality of the players up north. Their skillsets might be a bit different but they are some athletes and are mentally tough.”

Robertson is a different sort of character – a surfer from Sumner who has been known to breakdance when his teams win – but he is the perfect fit for this expressive and exciting Crusaders set-up.

Forwards like Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks and Luke Romano provide real grit to the Christchurch-based side, and yet they are about more than those solid forward foundations.

The Crusaders are a positive force and it will be riveting to see how their brand of brilliance goes against the Lions.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play the best players in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Dagg.

“They play a different brand of footy, so it is going to be different – physical and I know the boys know what is coming. The Lions will be angry boys so it will be like Test match footy.

“Next time the Lions come I’ll be an old man on the couch with my dinner on my lap.”

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