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Crusaders enter 2022 with more to prove as last year's worst All Blacks performers

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

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In each of the last five seasons, Scott Robertson’s Crusaders have won a title of some sort. Three straight Super Rugby titles, followed by two Super Rugby Aotearoa titles between 2017 to 2021.

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The Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition saw Robertson’s men miss the final purely on points differential even after five wins from five. The Crusaders are a well-oiled machine that seemingly can’t be derailed.

The four other Kiwi franchises have put together decent squads too, only for the Crusaders to keep trumping them time and time again.

Oddly, however, the All Blacks in Robertson’s squad enter 2022 having been categorically some of the worst performers in the national side last year, with the sole exception of Will Jordan.

As the All Blacks waned during their long tour like no other, it was often the Crusaders players who looked out of sorts and troubled under Ian Foster. Looking back on the biggest All Black losses, it was the Crusaders who came up short.

Joe Moody, Scott Barrett, Codie Taylor, Richie Mo’unga, David Havili and George Bridge were hampered by ill-discipline, poor errors, hapless kicking, panicked decisions, and yips under the high ball.

Even Braydon Ennor against Italy added to the Crusaders-centric woes, while all the hype around Ethan Blackadder was overdone. He is a hard worker that was largely ineffective in contact and at the breakdown.

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You name it, a high-profile Crusaders player was there to butcher it against South Africa, Ireland and France.

They weren’t the only players to perform less than their best, but given how they perform in Super Rugby, the expectations around them are higher. They form the bulk of the All Blacks side by far. If they fail, the All Blacks fail.

Despite Foster taking aim at Jordan after the first Springboks test and hooking him during it, a little look over Bridge’s performance would have been wiser.

Bridge couldn’t catch anything kicked his way, and gifted a try to Sbu Nkosi early. His lack of finishing ability was a low point for the All Blacks backline all season.

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A week later, five minutes into the second test against the Springboks, after Ardie Savea won a turnover, a wide pass from Havili to Taylor hit the hooker in the face and dropped to the turf inside their own 22.

The loose ball was recovered by the Springboks and Damian de Allende scored seconds later in the corner.

Havili’s and Mo’unga’s dreadful kicking in Dublin put the side under an enormous defensive load against Ireland. Caelen Doris running straight through Taylor to score under the sticks was a sight to behold.

How did Romain Ntamack escape from a mountain of in-goal pressure to instigate a sweeping French counter-attack in Paris? Firstly by shoving off the first up attempt by Mo’unga. What about Damian Penaud’s intercept? Gift-wrapped by Havili.

Aside from the errors, the lack of meaningful big plays to offset the bad weren’t there. Taylor had flashes, setting up Jordan for a try against South Africa and scoring one against Ireland.

Havili had the odd moment but Mo’unga didn’t produce any big plays on tour when it mattered. They were simply ineffective most of the time against the best opposition.

The list of the best All Blacks performers in the big games were Jordie Barrett, Ardie Savea, Beauden Barrett, Will Jordan and possibly Rieko Ioane.

This is one of the most puzzling aspects about the All Blacks in 2021. A side bolstered full of star players from a champion Crusaders team played well below par. Shockingly bad, in fact, compared to their usual high standards.

Is it that the Crusaders men are the only ones who know the difference between Ian Foster and Scott Robertson? Whenever Foster speaks, instructs or floats an idea, the men from Christchurch can compare that to what Robertson would have said.

After five years of Super Rugby under Robertson, some of the same in-game situations would surely have been discussed. The Crusaders players know the difference in how the coaches think. The others are none the wiser and ignorance is bliss.

Is this having such an impact? Who knows.

It is baffling to see such talented players put in floundering performances that don’t do their abilities justice. We’ve seen what they can do against the rest of New Zealand’s best for half a decade.

Because of such a poor showing at international level last year, the Crusaders enter 2022 with more to prove than ever before.

Robertson has had to watch his beloved players look unworthy of their All Blacks selections and couldn’t do anything about it.

He has had to bide his time for a shot at the All Blacks job and has had to watch this unfold in the meantime. The players themselves will be motivated after being set-up to fail and, quite frankly, be flat-out embarrassed.

Mo’unga, the MVP of Super Rugby Aotearoa the last two seasons, hasn’t dispelled the narrative that he can’t perform at international level in big games.

England had his number at the 2019 World Cup, and so did Ireland and France last year. Likewise, the Springboks controlled him in the final 20 minutes on the Gold Coast.

You know who does show up in big games? Beauden Barrett.

In that same Gold Coast fixture, it was ‘BB’ with the cross-kick to set-up Reece and the monster line break to spark Savea’s try. In the 100th against Wales, Barrett scored a couple of intercept tries to bookend proceedings.

Say what you want about his game management at times, but it’s indisputable that he makes big plays and his defence is outstanding. The amount of tries he has saved in test rugby is not talked about enough.

Mo’unga got hung out to dry multiple times by his opposite Ntamack against France. If he needs any more motivation, there it is. If you need a new goal this season, become the best defensive 10 in the country, in addition to being an attacking superstar.

The last thing any of the other New Zealand franchises need is a Crusaders side with a chip on their shoulder, but it feels like one is coming in 2022 despite all their past success.

The Blues have all the attention now with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and an incredible roster of talent. They celebrated with the Trans-Tasman trophy after beating the Highlanders, while the Crusaders could only sit back and watch despite winning all their games.

A new title, Super Rugby Pacific, is up for grabs, which no team has claimed before. Robertson will find a theme and mould his squad to show what those All Blacks can really do.

A sixth title in six straight years would be a remarkable feat by any standards, not just in rugby, but in professional sport.

If they do achieve it, perhaps the All Blacks can get some of that form too.

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