Former Crusader defends under-pressure coach

Crusaders Chris Jack (left) and Brad Thorn during a Super Rugby Match against the Bulls at Timaru...
Crusaders Chris Jack (left) and Brad Thorn during a Super Rugby Match against the Bulls at Timaru in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
A former Crusader is defending under-pressure coach Rob Penney as the Christchurch-based rugby franchise grapples with a dreadful injury toll and an unprecedented losing run.

A scarcely believable period has marked the side's opening month of their Super Rugby campaign as they pursue some semblance of good fortune and success on field.

It is unfamiliar terrain for the 14-time champions, following a golden run where they have set the competition pace.

In 2024, they are zero and five and sit at the bottom of the ladder with a total two competition points as their inexperienced squad face another imposing challenge on Friday.

The side returns home to face the second-placed Chiefs - their fellow 2023 finalists are highly fancied to earn a long awaited third championship this year.

The visitors will be confident coming to the Garden City for a return bout following an opening round win and their opponents hugely depleted and down on confidence.

Sixty-seven test All Black and former Crusader lock Chris Jack said placing the blame solely at the coach's feet was unjust.

"To deal with the amount of injuries that he's had to deal with and the experience that goes with those injuries is difficult.

"He's trying to put a seal on it and he's losing all his key marquee players that can help it work for him ... [it] is really difficult."

Rob Penney is coaching an injury-ridden team and adapting to the loss of key players overseas....
Rob Penney is coaching an injury-ridden team and adapting to the loss of key players overseas. Photo: Getty Images

Will Jordan, Ethan Blackadder, Braydon Ennor, Scott Barrett, Tamaiti Williams, Fergus Burke, Leigh Halfpenny, and now David Havili have all been unavailable through injury.

Hooker Codie Taylor remains on a non-playing sabbatical.

This follows the post-World Cup exodus of experiencing playing personnel which includes Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo'unga, Jack Goodhue and Leicester Fainga'anuku.

Although a losing streak like this is an historic low point for a franchise like the Crusaders, Jack recalled some of the obstacles the team encountered during their first wave of success.

Coming off a maiden title in 1998, he was a rangy 20-year-old squad member during the 1999 Super 12 campaign.

Before marching to a second consecutive crown, the defending champions had dropped to a lowly eighth place after losing to the Stormers in Cape Town, a defeat which sparked coach Wayne Smith to drop Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens to the bench for the following week.

"Things weren't going to plan," Jack said.

"We were having a bit of a talk as a team, I remember we were all around together.

"It just took one of our leaders to stand up and say 'boys we're not being true to ourselves, let's go out and express ourselves'."

That leader was the late Norm Berryman, one of the beloved stars of the Crusaders backline during that initial run which led the franchise to their first Super Rugby three-peat.

After enduring some honest conversations, the Crusaders would proceed to turn their campaign around, their wounded test star playing a starring (and infamous) role the very next game.

Coming off the pine, Mehrtens' last-gasp drop goal to deny the Bulls in Pretoria was remembered for his twin middle-fingered salutes to the Loftus crowd.

The Todd Blackadder-captained team then scrapped their way to a semi-final berth by winning their final three round-robin games.

They then outsed the Reds in the Brisbane semi-final before toppling the Highlanders in the Dunedin decider a week later.

The complication with the 2024 group is experience after their stand-in captain Havili hobbled off with a calf injury during their 26-6 loss at Eden Park last weekend. 

"With that leadership not being there on the field, they can still go out and express themselves and maybe these young guys need that opportunity to feel like that," he said.

Halfback Mitchell Drummond will take the captain's arm band against the Chiefs on Friday.

Of the starting 15, Drummond is one of only four who played last year's Super Rugby final, alongside Dallas McLeod, Tom Christie and Chay Fihaki - underlining the void of experience that determines the Crusaders current situation.

Staring down the barrel of a sixth consecutive defeat, the reinforcements cannot come soon enough.