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Crusaders are like Golden State


Analysis: The Crusaders are like the Golden State Warriors in more ways than one

There is no team in Super Rugby that can play at the tempo that the Crusaders can, especially in afternoon daylight on a still afternoon in Christchurch.

For the third time this season, they crushed the visitors by a large score under those conditions. They are averaging 43.7 points at home in their three day games so far, and while they won’t be happy about having conceded an average of 21.3 points, in all three wins they have had leads of 25+ points at some stage during the match.

If they continue this run and secure home ground advantage, it’s hard to see who will stop the back-to-back Super Rugby champions on their quest for three-straight titles, much like NBA’s current dynasty team, the Golden State Warriors.

And while the two teams play completely different sports, their attacking philosophies in some ways overlap – built around ball movement at such a speed that opens up space, with an obsession around fundamental skills like the catch-pass or shooting long-range threes, allowing them to run up scores as high-octane point-scoring machines.

While the Warriors scheme open shots with a flurry of passing, player movement and not much dribbling, the Crusaders also rarely rely on just one-man to bust open the defence. They use quick hands to stretch defences to their limits but do so with short, simple, direct passing.

When the Crusaders are at their best, as they were in the second half against the Brumbies, they can maintain tempo and ball velocity, moving it through hands with clinical accuracy despite running at high speed.

They know that the ball will always beat the man, but only if certain fundamentals are adhered to.

1 second or less

If you determined the passes-per-phase average for the Crusaders, it would probably be the highest of all Super Rugby teams.

The Crusaders 2-4-2 structure is built for passing as there is only one primary pod. You will often find that this pod delivers a pass just as often as they go to the ground with a generic carry.

Whetu Douglas, Scott Barrett, Quintin Strange, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua, Joe Moody, Andrew Makalio and Codie Taylor are all forwards with soft hands that are able to catch and move the ball under pressure, or can press the issue to the line before releasing the ball.

All Black lock Scott Barrett has a genuine case as the best ball-player out of his set of brothers, and that’s saying something given his two at the Hurricanes are backs.

Playing with hips square, running direct, drawing in multiple defenders and taking a shot while feeding someone else into a half-gap on a tip-ball or swivel pass is Scott Barrett’s specialty from the middle of a pod.

On this occasion his extremely flat tip ball milliseconds before contact puts Joe Moody (1) into a half-gap, punching through to create in-roads in the Reds defence. His tip ball to Moody opens up an opportunity for speedster Will Jordan (15) coming around outside him but the prop can’t get a second pass away.

Barrett takes plenty of punishment in order to put the next man in a better position to succeed, and it’s this adherence to good passing fundamentals that fuels the machine and creates opportunities like the above for Jordan.

Five Crusaders occupy the top 10 in line break assists from forwards in Super Rugby: Todd (1st), Taufua (4th), Barrett (6th), Dougles (8th) and Billy Harmon (10th). This is a disproportionate but highly indicative statistic that shows how skilled this pack is at passing.

Against the Brumbies, Todd is able to get a pullback pass away to Richie Mo’unga in under a second with front-on pressure from Lachlan McCaffrey (8). McCaffrey pursues the contact instead of remaining as an option in defence, and Allan Alaalatoa (3) binds on the tip runner despite the ball clearly going out the back.

These defensive reads are made in split seconds but this where the Crusaders separate themselves from everyone else. They prey on bad commit decisions at the line, which the Brumbies made plenty of on the weekend, while avoiding these mistakes themselves.

In the inverse situation, the ball goes out the back to Christian Lealiifano but Matt Todd (7) and Jordan Taufua (20) change direction when they see the ball go past in order to ‘swim’ through the Brumbies forwards to push on as inside cover out wide. Rarely do they initiate contact on a player without the ball.

Against the Hurricanes, the Crusaders’ defenders see the early swivel pass and find ways around the traffic to swarm the ball carrier. Read shoots around the edge to put a tackle on Chase Tiatia, well before the Hurricanes fullback reaches the gain line.

As he wraps up Tiatia, the three closest players are all wearing red and all on their feet ready to contest after the tackle is completed, which wouldn’t be possible if they made bad commit decisions and took themselves out of play.

If you want to put a big shot on, great, but you better make sure it is a ball-and-all tackle otherwise you are hurting your team and contributing to turning your defence into a sieve.

Against a team like the Crusaders, even more accuracy than usual is required due to the skilled ball-playing pack. Slow reactions to the pass and decisions to put shots on ball-less players will kill you.

Collective ball-speed

Crusaders phase play frequently flows between organised pattern and free flow play, but it is all connected with simple short passing, with limited long floating cutout passes.

With such experienced campaigners, they can organise screens and backdoor plays on the run without much advance planning. With every player having a certain level of handling skills, it can fall into place seamlessly.

Nine phases deep into a possession that has lost some of its structure, the Crusaders backs re-group to target a developing weakness in the Brumbies defensive line, which is overcommitted to one side.

10-seconds before this picture during the previous phase, Will Jordan (14) was flanked on the far right wing and Sevu Reece (11) was jogging in from the left, but here both wings are in the middle of the field ready to be apart of this play.

A key feature of this Crusaders system is how Jordan, in particular, is free to float around and find work. Jordan’s support play, learned from playing years at fullback, is a major asset but stationed on the wing would go to waste if the Crusaders weren’t so willing to let him pop up wherever he sees fit.

They allow him to roam often and here he is called over by Tim Bateman (13) to provide an inside option while Reece stations outside Ryan Crotty (12).

The Crusaders use simple hands, never passing past more than one player at a time, but with each man running onto it directly with pace. Eventually they will reach the defence, whether they come forward or not.

With the space flooded with Crusaders’ numbers against a limited line, one or more players are going to become open. On this occasion it is Crotty who is tasked with the ball-playing. You couldn’t have a better Crusader to do so, as he has lodged nine line break assists already this season, the equal most of any player.

Crotty has little time to turn and pass but feels two Brumbies players converge on him, he gets it away with quick hands before being sandwiched and Sevu Reece becomes the open man to run in untouched for their first try.

The Crusaders can ramp up the speed of the game with rapid ball movement, which eventually becomes overbearing for tired defences needing to be laser-like in their focus.

When they smell blood in the water with a tiring side, their own exit zone becomes anything within 10-metres of their own tryline. Everything else is kept in hand and they will run it out from deep in their own half, using short passing to get metres downfield.

It is death by a thousand cuts with sharp accurate handling and direct line running, with players holding the ball for around 1 to 1.5 seconds.

While Bryn Hall and Richie Mo’unga have the ability to throw long cutouts when necessary, short passing at pace is the modus operandi. The defence can’t drift and eventually will run out of numbers if the Crusaders stay direct.

Even though the score was 7-0 in the Brumbies favour at halftime, the Crusaders came out in the second half and refused to exit kick from their 22.

The tempo was so high in the opening half that they must have felt that the chink in the wall was starting to become much wider. They exploded with 33 unanswered points, each time running the ball back and scoring despite starting from deep in their own half.

The Golden State Warriors can dispatch teams within one-quarter of basketball with efficient long-range shooting, the Crusaders can dispatch teams in a twenty-minute period with long-range tries.

Both use rapid ball movement as the primary means to do so, and both teams are heading towards three-straight championships without much competition. Although they are playing two different sports, there can be parallels drawn with their philosophies towards the game and what they are achieving within it.

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Analysis: The Crusaders are like the Golden State Warriors in more ways than one