For the past four seasons, Richie Mo’unga has been one of, if not the best performer at Super Rugby level. The prodigiously talented first five has at times made a mockery of defences and he’s continued that excellent form into 2021.
Despite his impressive showings for the Crusaders, however, Mo’unga has never replicated that form at test rugby level.
Since his debut in 2017, Mo’unga has started 16 matches for the All Blacks in the pivot role but his form in the black jersey would best be described as adequate – which is nowhere the level he’s proven himself capable of when representing the Super Rugby champions.
Some will suggest that’s because he hasn’t been playing behind a pack that regularly dominates their opposition, as is typically the case when he’s pulling the strings for the Crusaders.
That’s a somewhat reductive take, however, when the problem is much more complex.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Mo’unga’s teammate Bryn Hall has acknowledged that Mo’unga hasn’t had the same impact for the All Blacks as he has for the Crusaders.
“We’ve seen it for a long time now, that’s he’s been world-class at Super Rugby and I think by Richie’s standard, he’s probably wanted to take that form up to the next level, he wants to take it to the All Blacks,” Hall said.
“For New Zealand rugby and for New Zealand fans, that’s what we want to see … We want to see that kind of progression of him dominating games. I look at the Wallabies test match, that Bledisloe in Sydney, that was probably his stand-out performance but it’s been [just] one performance.
“Whereas, you know, there’s been so many in the Crusaders jersey where you think, ‘Man, Richie’s played well this game, this game, against this team, had moments against Super Rugby teams’. So, I think for him, he’s obviously wanted to play really well for the Crusaders and he’ll do his due diligence around that but I think that next level, that’s probably where we want to see that step up.”
“I think the level of consistency he’s shown at Super Rugby level is freakish,” added former All Black James Parsons. “He’s been up for Super Rugby player of the year two, three years – and will be again, let’s be honest.
“[But] it’s that step up and I think he would have learned a lot around the pressures of All Blacks from the World Cup and last year, it was a tough year at test match level for the All Blacks.”
The Crusaders reinforced their dominance over the rest of the country and the Hurricanes remained winless, but who were the five best players from the latest round of Super Rugby Aotearoa? #SuperRugbyAotearoa https://t.co/MMWHBaxE9m
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 22, 2021
Both players agreed that the attacking game plan for the All Blacks in the past hasn’t necessarily suited Mo’unga’s strengths but changes made throughout last year’s campaign could reap rewards in 2021.
While the Crusaders favour sending a pod of forwards ahead of whoever’s stationed at first receiver – allowing the No 10 to pick and choose when to inject themselves and the backs into the play, the NZ national side have tended towards stationing forward pods further out in the backline, keeping the first receiver busy at all times.
Following the Bledisloe Cup draw in Wellington last year, the All Blacks started adjusting their structure, however, to more resemble that which has been so successful for the Crusaders.
“I think that’s what brings the best out of [Mo’unga] at the Crusaders, he just really has a game plan that has his DNA and his touch on it,” Parsons said. “So I think if he can get that confidence and that game plan at that next level, I think that will bring the best out of him.
“I think they’ve [now made the tweaks to suit Mo’unga strengths]. I think we started to see that with [former Crusaders assistant] Brad Mooar in the All Blacks. I think he’s starting to make those tweaks and I think they’ll be fine-tuned. I feel like those adjustments have been made.”
Parsons also suggested that the altered game plan would suit Beauden Barrett just as effectively – who’s currently spending the Super Rugby season playing in Japan but will be back on deck for the All Blacks’ test campaign.
“I think Beaudie could do the same game plan, to be honest – he could [switch] between either. I think Beaudie’s effective in any style, to be honest – just because of his raw speed.”
"There were bigger prizes out there for some of the Crusaders’ better players and, try as coach Todd Blackadder might, that never changed."
– Hamish Bidwell weighs in on some of the remarkable feats of Scott Robertson. https://t.co/iXSsd6lPP1
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 22, 2021
Hall, who notched up his 100th Super Rugby cap in Sunday’s win over the Blues, believed that the All Blacks would stick to their new approach and that the new plan would bring out the best in Mo’unga’s game and allow the 26-year-old to flourish.
“I don’t think they’ll alter their game plan based on their No 10s,” he said. “I just think for Richie, there’s a specific game plan that works – and do you and try and marry that up with the All Blacks’ plan, around how they play? Even if Beaudie was there, they’d have the same game plan.
“They have altered it a little bit … And I think it just takes time [to find your feet] at test level. Look at Dan Carter when he left and Beaudie ended up being the 10, it wasn’t smooth sailing from the start, when that transition period came. I think at test level, it just takes a bit of time.”
Mo’unga, who has 77 Super Rugby caps to his name, likely has the inside running at the All Blacks No 10 jersey this season, with Barrett again expect to slot in at fullback.
Mo’unga’s Crusaders have a bye this weekend and will enter the second round of Super Rugby Aotearoa fixtures undefeated and as hot favourites to take out an unprecedented 5th title in a row.
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now