After the most modest of starts, the Crusaders have owned the Super rugby series. They finished last in 1996 when South African, New Zealand and Australian officials, in a hurried show of sporting brotherhood, set up a professional competition to combat the threat from entrepreneurs and rival codes. The Crusaders scraped together just two wins from a squad which used an illustrious All Black trio of Justin Marshall, Todd Blackadder and Richard Loe as captains during that difficult season. It was tough for their faithful to envisage the record that was to follow from that beginning.
Seven trophies and two runners-up medals in the ensuring 13 seasons has been an incredible collection. Only three other teams, the Blues, Brumbies and Bulls, have claimed the Super title while the Crusaders, since that horror beginning, have only missed out twice on the play-offs. They were helped by the coaching gifts of Robbie Deans, prudent selections, the widespread hard working talent of the squad and the extra-special qualities of captain and flanker Richie McCaw and goalkicking first five eighths general Daniel Carter.
The Crusaders knew their title defence this year would have to be made without Carter who was granted leave of absence to play in France but they did not consider their talismanic forward would also be out of action. If Carter was the Michael Schumacher of the side, someone who could plot the Crusaders passage calmly around the field as he accrued points, McCaw was the engine, the multi-valve, mega horsepower motor with no back-off and no stop.
Throughout New Zealand's celebrated rugby history there have been superb flankers like Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld, men who have defined their eras with their skills, courage and athleticism. If anything, McCaw may be the best of the lot. He started his All Black career at the age of 20, has played 70 Tests and has only lost seven times in the black jersey. He has led the team on 33 occasions and made only three losing speeches. When either he or Carter are missing, the All Blacks are vulnerable.
Both are now absent from the Crusaders' Super 14 title defence. Half of last year's squad disappeared to take lucrative offshore deals in what always loomed as a tough debut coaching year for Blackadder. Then as the Crusaders fell to a third straight loss for the first time since their horror 1996 origins, the omens got worse. McCaw was sandwiched in a ruck, his right knee pinned at an awkward angle.
Anxiety spread so quickly the senior All Black coaches in the crowd almost beat McCaw to the medical room. Definitely no Carter and perhaps no McCaw for the start of the mid-year Test schedule was almost too much for them to contemplate. Subsequent medical bulletins this week have said McCaw would be missing for six weeks, back for the latter parts of the Super 14 if the Crusaders qualified, and ready for All Black combat.
He could become the only All Black to reach a milestone of 100 Tests about the time of the next World Cup in 2011 if his body stays intact. He is crucial to the Crusaders hopes and central to the All Black plans. Flankers like Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Adam Thomson and Scott Waldrom have been used or have been bashing on the selectors' door. They are useful players who would have got regular votes in other All Black eras.
But McCaw is special, someone who makes his rivals appear just standard players. His presence is vital to the Crusaders and All Blacks. firstname.lastname@example.org