Should Crusaders fans be worried?

The Crusaders celebrate with the Super Rugby trophy. Photo: Getty Images
The Crusaders celebrate with the Super Rugby trophy. Photo: Getty Images
As the countdown to the kickoff for Super Rugby Pacific 2024 on February 23 gathers momentum, the Herald has examined the talking points for each team ahead of their new campaign. Today, Elliott Smith casts his eye over the defending champions, the Crusaders.

Why Crusaders fans should be optimistic

They know their way to the finish line in Super Rugby better than any other side and, despite some high-profile departures, still field a squad with depth that many other teams would kill for.

Their Canterbury and Tasman-based academies have ensured the stocks are refilled despite big losses and, with the handy signing of Levi Aumua and some older heads returning, the Crusaders will be hard work to get past again.

Why Crusaders fans should be worried

Those high-profile departures are rather significant and it shapes as a year for the Crusaders to bed in some younger talent to set them up for success down the track rather than a continuation of the dynasty developed over the past seven years. Usually, these sorts of season previews add the caveat that if a team can remain injury-free, they’ll be up there. Unfortunately, for the Crusaders, they’ve already had several of those too.

Mitchell Drummond shows Sam Whitelock how much he will be missed. Photo: Getty Images
Mitchell Drummond shows Sam Whitelock how much he will be missed. Photo: Getty Images
Three Wise Men

Whitelock. Mo’unga. Robertson. These are departures that collectively leave the Crusaders without three of the pillars that have carried them to success over the past seven years, which also brought seven trophies. The Crusaders aren’t the house that those three built, but the trio went full Grand Designs on it, after the most successful franchise in Super Rugby had stagnated between 2009 and 2016. The departures aren’t just holes to fill in the Crusaders, they’re a chasm. Individually and collectively.

The last time Whitelock didn’t appear on a Crusaders teamsheet during a season was 2009, with even a Japanese sabbatical in 2020 ending up with him turning out for the Crusaders after returning to New Zealand during the pandemic. Robertson himself described Whitelock as an immortal and carrying “god status” before and after their win in the final last year in which the most-capped All Black in history overcame a leg injury to play 80 minutes in the victory. While the Crusaders can call upon 2020 All Blacks selection Quinten Strange and a trio of promising youngsters waiting in the wings, it’s Whitelock’s experience and mana that will be missed in 2024.

The Crusaders have had higher-profile departures – Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after 2015 because of their standing in the game historically and globally – but it’s likely Mo’unga, Whitelock and Robertson’s departures will be even keener felt than those.

And if that wasn’t enough ...

The departures of those three are significant on their own, but let’s throw in the much-too-soon departure of Leicester Fainga’anuku to Toulon, the injury-plagued-so-understandable departure of Jack Goodhue, the campaign-ending injuries to Will Jordan and Braydon Ennor, the long injury spells to Fergus Burke and new recruit Leigh Halfpenny, the delayed starts for David Havili and Ethan Blackadder and extended break of Codie Taylor mean it feels like the seven-straight champions are starting this season in choppier waters for the first time in several years.

Who plays 10?

Mo’unga’s departure is one thing – a player that had developed a Super Rugby superpower in standing up in the big occasions of the competition – but the likely replacement for him in Fergus Burke won’t be sighted until May owing to an Achilles issue from Super Rugby last year.

That leaves Rivez Reihana and Taha Kemara to run the cutter in the early rounds at least, with neither appearing to emerge as the favourite in pre-season making for an interesting selection for new coach Rob Penney for their season opener.

The term “big shoes to fill” seems right here given Robertson often compared Mo’unga to an NFL “franchise quarterback”.

The coach

Robertson’s departure means a huge change for the Crusaders and their supporters who have embraced each other over the past seven years. Few coaches address their supporters before a big finals match through the on-ground microphone, few rev them up like Robertson did before last year’s semis before the Blues. Robertson has been more akin to a more exuberant European football manager than the New Zealand mould of rugby coach. Rob Penney is not that kind of person. Nor does he need to be but his style will ultimately be different.

His appointment has been widely seen as an interim step until Tamati Ellison is ready to step up in a couple of years. That he’s a gap-filler is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Penney but there’s a certain degree of selflessness in doing a job knowing you’re training up your replacement. Many have done such things without even realising.

Penney perhaps belatedly gets a crack at a New Zealand Super Rugby franchise around a decade after his pomp as Canterbury NPC coach. Some eyebrows were raised when Penney got the job given the way he left the Waratahs but it feels like Christchurch’s Rugby Park and Crusaders HQ is a better system for him.


-By Elliott Smith