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Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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Advantage All Blacks
Stephen Nell
May 9, 2011
The Crusaders celebrate Wyatt Crockett's try, Stormers v Crusaders, Super Rugby, Newlands stadium, Cape Town, South Africa, May 7, 2011.
The Crusaders celebrate Wyatt Crockett's try during their Super Rugby victory over The Stormers © Getty Images
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It has often been said that the All Blacks are vulnerable when they are without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, and for a while there was merit in that statement.

Stephen Donald certainly proved a poor substitute for Carter when circumstances led New Zealand to picking him in the No.10 jersey during 2009. However, having watched the Crusaders beat South Africa's three top franchises - the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks - I'm not quite so sure whether the argument about Carter and McCaw continues to hold.

Note that once again McCaw and Carter were absent as the Crusaders beat the Stormers 20-14 in an epic Super Rugby match at Newlands on Saturday. Earlier in the season they romped to victories of 27-0 over the Bulls in Timaru and 44-28 over the Sharks at Twickenham. Carter played against the Sharks, but both he and McCaw were absent in the whitewash of the Bulls. With these victories Todd Blackadder's team has made a statement.

I guess one can't necessarily generalise everything the Crusaders do to the All Blacks, but with the depth of talent at their disposal they are in a good space. If the World Cup follows its expected script, New Zealand and South Africa will meet in a semi-final in Auckland. And if that comes to pass, right now I'd say it's a case of "advantage All Blacks".

What was impressive about the weekend's victory by the Crusaders is the mental resolve and strength of character that came with the package. Not only were the Crusaders sans Carter and McCaw, but they were also missing their first-choice lock pairing of Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock, as well as tight-head prop Ben Franks and scrum-half Andy Ellis.

In the first-half on Saturday, they lost two of the competition's leading try-scorers in Israel Dagg and Sean Maitland, as well as scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i. Even Adam Whitelock, who had come on for Dagg, had to be replaced. And yet the Crusaders somehow pulled together and won the game when all the odds were stacked against them.

They have also added another string to their bow in Sonny Bill Williams. The big centre's performance on Saturday underlined his ability to take the All Blacks to another level. There was a trademark off-load in the tackle as the Crusaders breached the Stormers' line for the first of their two tries. Williams's ability to draw defenders and then get the ball to a team-mate in space will certainly give the All Blacks' opponents plenty to think about at the World Cup.

The flakiness that can sometimes characterise New Zealand's weaker sides was there in abundance when the Chiefs and Highlanders crossed swords in Hamilton earlier on Saturday.

Both sides made a huge amount of errors, but the reality is that with the Crusaders and Blues supplying the bulk of the players - and the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Highlanders contributing a handful of outstanding individuals - it's difficult to see anybody stopping New Zealand from romping to this year's World Cup final.

 
"You can never write South Africa off, but they are an ageing group and whereas the All Blacks have evolved and brought in something out of the ordinary in Williams."
 

There is a school of thought that the Springboks are the one team capable of stopping the All Blacks. You can never write South Africa off, but they are an ageing group and whereas the All Blacks have evolved and brought in something out of the ordinary in Williams, the Boks are very much sticking to the tried and trusted.

John Smit was recently named captain for the defence of the World Cup, even though he does not command a regular starting berth at the Sharks. It is believed that the Saracens-bound Bok-skipper will start some games at the World Cup and Bismarck du Plessis others.

Springbok coach Peter de Villiers probably did the right thing by sticking with Smit because he transcends provincial boundaries. South Africa could not afford the kind of public relations disaster that, for example, accompanied the sackings of Francois Pienaar and Gary Teichmann.

However, it will be interesting to see how the coach manages the captaincy dynamic in his side. There may be games where he prefers to start with Du Plessis at hooker, which would mean bench duty for Smit and possibly captaincy for Victor Matfield.

The one interesting move by De Villiers is the formal confirmation that he intends bringing Rassie Erasmus on board as consultant to assist with the coaching at the World Cup. Erasmus is now the director of coach at Western Province and renowned in South Africa for his astute technical brain.

He is likely to improve the Springboks' defensive organisation and if there is a weakness in any opponent it is almost certain that he will pick it up. The introduction of the former Springbok loose forward to the management certainly gives the South Africans an x-factor in an area that they need it.

However, New Zealand possibly already hold a key psychological advantage over South Africa as the tournament draws ever closer. Speaking to Carter last week in Cape Town, one just got the impression that the Crusaders really want to do it for the people of Christchurch. And, dare I say it, destiny appears to be beckoning the All Blacks.

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