RYAN VREDE writes celebrating the likely absence of Richie McCaw is foolish when the Crusaders boast a replacement of the calibre of Matt Todd.
McCaw has established himself as the pre-eminent openside in world rugby, and his value, when fully fit and performing at optimal level, cannot be overstated.
He has battled a foot injury throughout the Crusaders’ campaign, and it is likely to be confirmed on Wednesday that he will not recover to face the Sharks in Nelson.
Whatever optimism that stirs must, however, be tempered. Todd has proven himself to be a more than competent deputy and, with referees allowing a far greater breakdown contest than they did in 2010, Todd will be a key player for the seven-time champions on Saturday.
Of the tournament’s openside flankers, only the Force’s David Pocock has pilfered more ball at ruck time than Todd. His work-rate has matched McCaw’s this season, seen by him contesting an average of 13 rucks per match. In addition, his anticipation and timing is superb, evidenced in large part by his low penalty count in relation to the number of times he contests at the breakdown.
The value of an effective and disciplined opensider in a play-off match cannot be overstated. Stifling the opposition’s attacking flow allows you to defend with a set line, making the task of scoring an arduous one.
This is where Todd’s primary value lies. While the trend is for referees to allow a greater contest at the breakdown, it remains difficult to effect turnovers. You only need to reflect on statistics from 2009 that show an average of nine breakdown turnovers per match compared to five under the new law interpretations.
However, in an environment where scoring opportunities will be difficult to craft given the premium placed on defence, a single turnover – from which the Crusaders are masters of capitalising – could be decisive to the outcome.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder spoke glowingly of Todd prior to their match against the Stormers in Cape Town in early May. In the build-up Blackadder left one in no doubt about the regard in which the player is held.
‘He is arguably the best openside to come out of our system since Richie,’ he told keo.co.za. ‘For one so young (23) he is already a smart bloke in terms of how he goes about his business.
‘It’s crucial these days for opensides to time their contest well, or they cop some stick from the referees. His timing is excellent; he is rarely not the second arrival, which obviously gives him a better crack at slowing or grabbing the pill.
‘We rate him highly and see him as a natural successor to Richie. Working alongside him [McCaw] everyday he is getting the best schooling around. The benefits of that are already starting to show in the way he has played this season.’
The Sharks will take heart from the fact that Todd had a limited impact when the sides met at Twickenham in March (he made two turnovers and contested 13 rucks). They nullified his potency by consistently crossing the gain-line, and will be determined to replicate that performance this weekend.
Failure to dominate this facet of play will offer Todd the opportunity to significantly dilute their threat.