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Crusaders promote from within to supplement arrival of Pablo Matera

By Tom Vinicombe
Pablo Matera. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

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While the promotion of five academy players into the national side is never going to attract as much attention as the signing of Argentina’s Pablo Matera, it’s the former additions who will help the Crusaders maintain their long-term stranglehold over New Zealand rugby.

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There’s more turnover in the Crusaders for next season than there was between 2020 and 2021, but Scott Robertson has still held onto his core starting players and now has the opportunity to develop some of New Zealand’s top young prospects in Super Rugby players, as the franchise has always done so well.

Just five new players were brought into the Crusaders at the start of this season and that number has shot up to nine for 2022, with five entirely new to Super Rugby and fresh off a middling provincial campaign with Canterbury.

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The four experienced options include Matera, who was hailed as a major signing earlier this season to keep the loose forward stocks healthy and will fill the void left by Whetukamokamo Douglas and Tom Sanders, former All Black Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, up-and-coming wing Kini Naholo and experienced pivot Simon Hickey.

Hickey is perhaps the only player in that quartet to not come into a position that’s already well-stocked, with young Fergus Burke the only other out and out alternative to Richie Mo’unga.

Matera will be competing with All Blacks Cullen Grace and Ethan Blackadder, and loose forwards Tom Christie and Sione Havili Talitui for minutes in the loose forwards – as well as new additions Dominic Gardiner and Corey Kellow.

At halfback, Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall look set to continue their battle for the No 9 jersey but Tahuriorangi is no slouch himself and will have made the move south hoping to reignite his brief All Blacks career.

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Naholo, meanwhile, is a prodigious talent but will have a big job ahead of him if he wants to usurp the likes of Sevu Reece, George Bridge, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Braydon Ennor or Will Jordan for a spot on the wing.

Gardiner and Kellow, meanwhile, will be joined by fellow Canterbury products Shilo Klein, Finlay Brewis and Zach Gallagher.

Klein and Brewis help bolster an already young front row, with young props Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell both 21 years old, while Gallagher joins a hugely talent locking group that includes Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Quinten Strange and Mitchell Dunshea.

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Brewis, Williams, Newell and Gallagher were all members of the last year’s New Zealand Under 20s training squad, while Gardiner was selected in this year’s squad and Kellow was vice-captain of the 2019 Secondary Schools side. As such, there’s huge potential in the Crusaders’ forward pack for 2022 to complement the All Blacks they already boast, including Codie Taylor, Joe Moody, Whitelock, Barrett, Blackadder and Grace.

The backline boasts even more depth, with Drummond, Jack Goodhue, Mo’unga, David Havili, Ennor, Bridge, Reece and Jordan all spending time in the All Blacks over the past few years, and the latter six all a part of the current team.

With Samoa’s Michael Alaalatoa the only loss from the starting side for next season, with the tighthead prop heading to Ireland, it would take a brave man to bet against the Crusaders’ success in 2022.

2022 Crusaders squad:

Hookers: Codie Taylor, Brodie McAlister, Shilo Klein

Props: Joe Moody, Oli Jager, Fletcher Newell, George Bower, Tamaiti Williams, Finlay Brewis

Locks: Scott Barrett, Quentin Strange, Mitchell Dunshea, Sam Whitelock, Zach Gallagher

Loose forwards: Tom Christie, Ethan Blackadder, Sione Havili Talitui, Cullen Grace, Pablo Matera, Dominic Gardiner, Corey Kellow

Halfbacks: Mitch Drummond, Bryn Hall, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi

First fives: Richie Mo’unga, Simon Hickey, Fergus Burke

Midfield: Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Braydon Ennor, Isaiah Punivai, Dallas McLeod

Outside backs: Chay Fihaki, George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Kini Naholo

2022 Crusaders transfers:

In: Matera (Argentina); Tahuriorangi (Chiefs); Naholo (Chiefs); Hickey (Hurricanes); Gardiner (Canterbury); Brewis (Canterbury); Gallagher (Canterbury); Klein (Canterbury); Kellow (Canterbury)

Out: Isileli Tuungafasi (Moana Pasifika); Andrew Makalio (Highlanders); Michael Alaalatoa (Ireland); Whetukamokamo Douglas (Japan); Tom Sanders (Japan); Ereatara Enari (Moana Pasifika); Brett Cameron (Japan); Manasa Mataele (Force), Luke Romano (Blues); Josh McKay (Scotland)

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