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Five key reasons why the Crusaders' wheels fell off in 2024

By Ben Smith
Christian Lio-Willie and Noah Hotham of the Crusaders. (Photos by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Crusaders have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2015 under first-year head coach Rob Penney, prompting an external review of the season.


Despite the absence of super coach Scott Robertson, playmaker Richie Mo’unga, and veteran lock Sam Whitelock, the Crusaders still had enough to at least make the playoffs. The absence of those three men is not the sole reason why this squad couldn’t finish with a better record than 4-10.

They finished just two competition points outside the eight which were very gettable for this Crusaders team. They lost once in extra time to the Waratahs and once on full-time to the Brumbies with a professional foul from Quinten Strange costing the side.

Perhaps they didn’t have the makings of a championship-contending team, but there is no doubt that this group of Crusaders were capable of making the playoffs.

Putting the microscope on this year’s group alone, here are the key reasons why they didn’t get more of the year.

Not starting Noah Hotham

The Crusaders’ early season run featured five straight losses to start the year, the last of the five was a demoralising 26-6 loss to the Blues at Eden Park.

During the first three losses, the Crusaders started three different halfbacks and two different 10s. The changes at first five were forced after Rivez Reihana suffered an injury in the first round, but at halfback, the rotations were by choice.


Hotham got the nod in round two against the Waratahs but didn’t impress, leading to a prompt replacement with 37-year-old Willi Heinz. The ex-England international then kept starting despite three losses piling up.

What’s now apparent is that Hotham should have been playing all year round, blossoming late in the season and proving to be a match-winning talent.

When the Crusaders finally broke the duck in round six against the Chiefs, it was Hotham who sparked the languid attack into life with two try assists in a dynamic showing.

Super Rugby is a young man’s game and Hotham proved that dynamic athleticism trumps experience. He can simply do things that Heinz cannot, and leaving that talent on the sidelines was costly.


If Hotham had been given the starting role earlier it might have paid off. He proved he could make plays and in the two games the Crusaders lost by four points, that could have made a big difference.

Absence of Fergus Burke

The man who was groomed for years to be Richie Mo’unga’s successor ended up being sidelined with injury once the All Black No 10 departed.

The absence of Burke was sorely felt and his form upon his return highlighted just how much he was missed. In a maestro performance against the Blues late in the season, the Crusaders’ attack looked the best it had all season and Burke was the reason.

The shape was running with precision, the passes sharpened up and the timing was coming into place. Burke had a couple of big plays in the construction of two Crusaders tries which contributed to the big win.

Without Burke, the Crusaders had to really test the depths of their first five stocks. Rivez Reihana looked like a solid option in round one only to succumb to injury. Ex-New Zealand U20 rep Taha Kemara looked out of sorts behind a pack struggling to make gain line and slow service. Ultimately his elevation to this level came too soon.

So it fell on Riley Hohepa, an NPC journeyman, to guide the Crusaders around the park for most of the season. No disrespect to Hohepa, but there surely were better local options to test out. Canterbury product Alex Harford, who was drafted into the Blues, would have been ideal to try out. It seems Hohepa had already reached his ceiling whereas the 24-year-old Harford is an unknown quantity.

All Black injury toll

This one is fairly straightforward. When Ethan Blackadder, Scott Barrett, David Havili, Tamaiti Williams, Will Jordan, George Bower, and Braydon Ennor spend a lot of the season on the sidelines, the team is going to be much weaker.

When you include Codie Taylor’s non-playing sabbatical, there were too many All Blacks not playing.

Taylor’s absence was felt heavily in the early part of the season with George Bell’s throwing off-target. The Crusaders lineout was running under 60 per cent in some games which isn’t going to lead to winning many games of rugby.

Bell looked impressive in other aspects of the park, scoring an incredible solo try in one game, but if the hooker can’t throw, there is no dough.

Injuries are the reality of professional sport but the Crusaders just simply couldn’t overcome the loss of so many big names in the squad.

Loose forward selections

The early season rotation of Tom Christie, Cullen Grace, Corey Kellow and Dom Gardiner offered toilers who pride themselves on work rate, but the back row lacked any real power. When the rest of the pack was getting dominated, this back row wasn’t able to help.

It’s not surprising then that three of the Crusaders’ four wins of the season came with No 8 Christian Lio-Willie in the starting side. He brought the go-forward needed with a strong carry game and that kind of power is irreplaceable.

His two-try performance against the Rebels in a 39-0 shutout showed what kind of impact he could have. When paired with the returning Ethan Blackadder, the Crusaders’ loose forward trio offered much more physicality and power ball carrying.

There was a better balance in the back row that ended up paying off. Cullen Grace, a hybrid lock-blindside, was able to fit in at No 6.

Big signing of Levi Aumua fizzled

The much-hyped-up signing of Moana Pasifika powerhouse Levi Aumua proved to be a work in progress. The fit of Aumua in the Crusaders’ game plan wasn’t great, he started at centre but often wasn’t the main carry option.

There were flashes where Aumua was at his best, smashing defenders and eating up metres for plenty of gain line runs, but these were infrequent and his role changed week-to-week.

As with any new signing in a new environment, it takes time to learn a new system and it doesn’t help when the team is struggling as they were in the early part of the year.

Aumua has plenty to offer the Crusaders and will be better next year, but the teething issues certainly didn’t help this season.

You can’t help but feel they underutilised one of their best players.



Watch the exclusive reveal-all episode of Walk the Talk with Ardie Savea as he chats to Jim Hamilton about the RWC 2023 experience, life in Japan, playing for the All Blacks and what the future holds. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV


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SadersMan 12 days ago

Poor coaching was the core reason. I’ve no doubt this team would’ve eased into the playoffs under Razor. Penney has a Foster like vibe, nice guy, shite head coach. For 2025, nothing changes if nothing changes.

David 13 days ago

Finally the NI teams keeping / signing their best players and stopping the constant flow of talent from North to South. Once that was plugged there was not enough local talent. Those Crusader academies (read recruiting machines) attracted so much northern talent for years. Imagine Barrett and Whitelock at the Canes for all those seasons when they struggled for top locks.

BMac 14 days ago

Some interesting points and speculation on the pre season tour to UK was it really required, was the initial appointment of Penny the correct one also after a poor record in Australia and Japan, he improved in UK for a short time.
Yes there were missing AB players but the quality of the rest still should have made top 8 and that is the failure of the coaching team.
My biggest annoyance was Levi Amua not used correctly. this guy should be at some stage the AB go forward mid fielder similar to a Bundee Aki or Ma Nonu type bulldozer going forward, he was the most feared midfielder in last 2 seasons and came to Crusaders and was not used-I agree with the comment-
You can’t help but feel they underutilised one of their best players.

Graham 14 days ago

Some good points made in this article about the Crusaders. Christian Lio- Willies return at no 8 and especially Ethan Blackadders brought real power to the Crusaders loose forwards. Those 2 in tandem with Cullen Grace were dynamic in 3 of the 4 wins. Codie Taylor’s return in the last month brought a real increst zest to the team.Also his leadership. The line out drives , line outs and ball in hand he was prominent. Fergus Burke showed what we had missed in his display against the Blues and other games. Would have been great to get regular captain Scott Barrett back. In his earlier return he showed why he is the best lock around. As the author says, Noah Hotham was brilliant in the win over the Chiefs and then the last few games , including wins over the Blues and Moana Pasifika. There were a lot of what ifs.

Jon 14 days ago

I only see two of these as being relevant, and one of them i’m not sure about.

Was Burke really that influential in the Blues game? I think he could have nailed down the spot for sure if he started the season, but I’m not sure it was the best idea to go to him so late. Those injuries, in a nutshell, are the only reason you need for why they are not in the top 8 (the other reasons where to be expected and natural).

I’m very happy with the way Hotham was used. To keep playing him when he was all out of kilter might not have eventuated with him find his feet by round 6. Heinze certainly over played, an expected outcome from having someone like Penny as coach though (along with the other old fuddy duddies that failed).

If I’m pin pointing something, its that they didn’t immediately switch back to Reihana from Hohepa. Hohepa, and latter Havali, was what the side need at the time, but not going up a gear sooner, with either of these two, is really what stopped them being in the top 6 in my mind.

Ross 14 days ago

Ben, a very accurate assessment. Agree with all of it.
What about the pre-season tour? Crusaders played two decent teams drawing from (mostly) young guys and were very competitive - but this amounted to nothing when Super Rugby started. Was this an unwelcome distraction or a wasted opportunity?

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