‘Lions are an unknown quantity’ : Deans

Crusaders coach Robbie Deans is satisfied with his side’s Super 14 win against the Reds on Saturday. But Deans affirms his side are a “work in progress” and their upcoming tour of South Africa will pose a “stern test”.

The Crusaders, who are without seven of their leading All Blacks, headed out for South Africa on Sunday, as they prepare to face the Lions in Johannesburg this Saturday.

“It was pleasing to be able to board Sunday’s plane for South Africa with a win behind us,” Deans said in his weekly column for the Crusaders website.

“Our performance against the Reds was great, both as a boost for the confidence of the squad as a whole, but also because we rectified a number of the areas that had let us down the week before in Auckland.”

“The work in the contact area was certainly a step up from where it had been at Eden Park.

“Defensively we were also better as a unit than we had been the week before during the loss to the Blues.

“The one on one missed tackles that had proved so costly against the Blues were absent and ‘Hammer’ [Crusaders assistant coach Mark Hammett] and I were pleased to see that.”

But the Crusaders are not getting ahead of themselves. The great Super 14 dynasty are still tipped, despite the absence of stars like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, to be a great influence in this year’s contest. But Deans realises it will take some of his younger charges a while to settle as they fill some big boots.

“As a group, we are still very much a work in progress. Last weekend was a big step up, but we can and will get better.

“Importantly also, we are still in the fortunate position of having a fully fit squad to choose from.

“Given that a higher proportion of our players than is usual are new to rugby at this level, it might have been expected that we’d have picked up a bit of battle damage by now.

“That we haven’t is a tribute to the work Ash [strength and conditioning coach Ashley Jones] has done.”

Deans is also looking forward to the opportunity of playing his young guns when they hit South African turf.

“For New Zealand rugby players, visiting South Africa has long been viewed as the ultimate rugby experience and that hasn’t changed in the age of professionalism.

“We have a handful of players in our group who are experiencing a tour of South Africa for the first time. They are really looking forward to the opportunity.”

Robbie Deans is also upbeat about the support he has received from South African crowds, who have long admired the Crusaders brand of rugby.

“I can still remember, a couple of years back at Cape Town, getting a standing ovation from the Newlands crowd after we beat the Stormers, and there were red and black jerseys everywhere.

“The support is certainly appreciated, and we are looking forward to seeing all of our South African fans turn out in force for the matches in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Durban on the current trip.”

The Lions have largely been written off as no-hopers in the eyes of many pundits. but Deans hesitates to do the same, especially after they gutsed out a hard win against the Highlanders on Saturday.

“The Lions are something of an unknown quantity, but they have made a promising start to the competition.

“After a narrow loss to the Waratahs, the Lions got their first win last weekend against the Highlanders, and showed plenty of ticker to get over the line in a contest that could easily have got away from them.”

The rugby cathedral that is Ellis Park is also a factor in Deans’s mind.

“It is a stadium that is steeped in history, but that can make it quite an intimidating venue for the visiting team.

“It is also a ground that we have struggled at in the past.

“Just playing there is going to be a significant occasion for the team, but we are not going to find it easy a

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