The Crusaders have a lot to thank their head coach and former 86-cap loose forward Scott Robertson for.
Between his departure from Christchurch as a four-time Super Rugby champion in 2003 and his return to the club at the end of 2016, the Crusaders had reached their peak and were beginning to plateau after steady yet worrisome decline.
In the five years following Robertson’s exit to Europe and Japan, his former coach Robbie Deans steered the Cantabrians to three more Super Rugby titles, taking his grand total to seven before leaving for the Wallabies in 2008.
Former All Blacks captain Todd Blackadder signed on as Deans’ replacement, but what ensued was the most unsuccessful period in the Crusaders’ history.
Eight seasons they went without securing a Super Rugby crown, and although they came within a whisker of winning in 2011 and 2014, they never replicated the prolific success that Deans earned them.
The fall from grace climaxed when they missed out on the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades in 2015, and so when Blackadder left for greener pastures the following year, the Crusaders faithful were desperate for someone to take them back to the top.
Now coming into his third season as Blackadder’s replacement, Robertson hasn’t just taken them to the top – he’s catapulted them there.
The 23-test former All Black has reinforced the Crusaders’ reputation as by far and away the most title-laden club in the competition by earning two trophies in his first two seasons on the job.
Throughout those 2017 and 2018 campaigns, no other side really looked like they would oust the Crusaders for the championship once the playoffs rolled around, and heading into 2019, it’s shaping up to be that way once again.
Robertson’s obvious passion for his club, players, and region is illustrated in his coaching and the style of play of which he’s implemented at the Crusaders, and those feelings are reciprocated towards him by his players and fans alike.
He’s become a firm fan favourite at AMI Stadium, and with his astute tactical awareness and unorthodox coaching philosophy which incorporates a large emphasis on having fun while achieving success, he’s made his side firm favourites to claim a third straight title as well.
It’s difficult to envisage another team denying the Crusaders a second-ever three-peat, not when they have got such an array of quality players, such a breadth of depth in their squad, and largely the same core of players who went back-to-back in 2017 and 2018.
The biggest name not to be returning is 203-match stalwart Wyatt Crockett, who has retired after a 13-season affiliation with the club.
Other significant departures include three-test All Black Seta Tamanivalu, who has signed with Bordeaux in the Top 14, and blockbusting loose forward Pete Samu, who has transferred to the Brumbies to pursue a test career in Australia.
However, despite the talent that trio of players possesses, those losses are mere blips in the Crusaders’ quest for a hat-trick of titles.
The holes left by those players were well and truly plugged up in the off-season, with the likes of exciting loose forward Whetu Douglas and powerful young winger Leicester Fainga’anuku coming in as their replacements.
They will complement the services of those who have already been in and around the squad for the past few seasons, which should only enhance the Crusaders’ fortunes.
Their all-star forward pack – almost entirely composed of seasoned All Blacks such as Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks – will continue to cause damage at the set-piece and at the breakdown, laying the platform for their backline, of which will again be orchestrated by the ever-impressive Richie Mo’unga.
He was so good from first-five last year that there were numerous calls for him to overtake Beauden Barrett as New Zealand’s starting first-five, and although that didn’t come to fruition, the 24-year-old will certainly put the pressure on Barrett over the course of the season.
Mo’unga looms as the Crusaders’ key man this year, as was the case in 2018, and should he reach that same level of brilliance, then those outside him, like Jack Goodhue and George Bridge, will flourish.
Keep an eye out for electric 20-year-old fullback Will Jordan.
Tamanivalu’s exit paves the way for the Tasman youngster to finally make his debut at this level, and should opposition defences choose to underestimate his capacity to strike from anywhere with ball in hand, they will be duly punished.
All in all, this settled side – bursting with quality and being led by a charismatic coach that knows how to win – are undeniable favourites to take out the 2019 edition of Super Rugby, and it’s going to take a monumental effort from anyone else to stop them.
New Zealand Conference Placing: 1 st
Player of the Year: Richie Mo’unga
Rookie of the Year: Will Jordan
Best Signing: Whetu Douglas
Breakout Player: Andrew Makalio
Ins: Harry Allan (Canterbury), Whetu Douglas (Benetton Treviso), Ere Enari (Canterbury),
Brett Cameron (Canterbury), Leicester Fainga’anuku (Tasman), Ngane Punivai (Canterbury)
Outs: Donald Brighouse (released), Wyatt Crockett (retired), Chris King (released), Sam
Anderson-Heather (released), Sebastian Siataga (released), Heiden Bedwell-Curtis
(Hurricanes), Pete Samu (Brumbies), Jack Stratton (released), Mike Delany (retired), Seta
Tamanivalu (Bordeaux), Tima Fainga’anuku (Perpignan), Jone Macilai-Tori (released)
Forwards: Michael Alaalatoa, Harry Allan, Owen Franks, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Tim Perry,
Ben Funnell, Andrew Makalio, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange,
Sam Whitelock, Ethan Blackadder, Whetu Douglas, Mitchell Dunshea, Billy Harmon, Kieran
Read, Tom Sanders, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd
Backs: Mitchell Drummond, Ere Enari, Bryn Hall, Brett Cameron, Mitch Hunt, Richie
Mo’unga, Tim Bateman, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge, Israel Dagg, Braydon
Ennor, Leicester Fainga’anuku, David Havili, Will Jordan, Manasa Mataele, Ngane Punivai
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