If there were any uncertainties surrounding whether or not the Crusaders could secure a fifth Super Rugby title on the trot, today’s squad naming should have quelled any fears in the Canterbury and Tasman regions.
Scott Robertson has brought in four new players to the squad that triumphed in this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition, and all four have graduated through the Crusaders Academy and made a name for themselves in New Zealand age-grade sides.
Props Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams and utility backs Chay Fihaki and Isaiah Punivai all attended the New Zealand Under 20 training camp earlier this year and likely would have earned selection in the squad had COVID-19 not put the season in ice. In 2019, the quartet were part of a dominant Canterbury Under 19 team that were crowned champions in the NZ Under 19 national competition.
All four were brought into the Crusaders Academy last year and earned maiden call-ups for Canterbury during this year’s Mitre 10 Cup.
“We have built a strong development programme here at the Crusaders and it’s always exciting to see players promoted from within our Academy system,” Robertson said.
“With the core of our playing group returning next year, it was important we also look to the future and this group of players, at just 19 and 20 years old, have plenty of potential. All four of these young men have already been exposed to our environment through the Academy, they understand how we train as Crusaders and what is expected of them on and off the field. It’s this holistic approach to player development that gives us the confidence they’re ready to make the step up to Super Rugby.”
While Newell was named Under 19 player of the year in 2019, fellow front-rower Williams has stood out as much for his dyanmicism across the park as he has for his core propping duties. Williams will debut off the bench for the Maori All Blacks on Saturday when they take on Moana Pasifika in Hamilton.
“Tamaiti is growing his craft as a tighthead prop, and has a great point of difference,” Robertson said of the 20-year-old. “He’s a big man, with the ability to carry with the best of them, and he’ll be better for his experience in the Maori All Blacks camp this week as well.
“Fletcher Newell was a standout player during the Canterbury Under 19 campaign last season, and has an unrelenting work-rate. He’s a powerful scrummager, and broke the Crusaders Academy all-time squat record with a massive 255kg effort earlier this year. Both players have the chance to work with [forwards coach] Jase Ryan in what is an experienced group of forwards, so we’re looking forward to seeing their progress in 2021.”
Williams and Newell will back up proven performers Michael Alaalatoa, George Bower, Oli Jager, Joe Moody and Isi Tu’ungafasi.
Chay Fihaki and Isaia Punivai, meanwhile, could fit in anywhere across the Crusaders backline – though Robertson hinted the pair will likely spend much of the season on the sidelines soaking up knowledge from the immense talent the Super Rugby Aotearoa champions possess.
“Isaiah is a quality young player, who brings immense physicality in the midfield and has the skillset to play multiple positions,” he said. “Last year’s Under 19 Captain, we think he’s poised to make an important contribution on and off the field in 2021.
“Our youngest player is utility back Chay Fihaki, who is only 19 and an incredibly skilful athlete. Chay has a massive boot and the ability to create something from nothing. He was recognised as Canterbury’s First-Year Player of the Year at their team awards recently, and we’re really excited about his potential.”
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While the Crusaders’ young talent for 2021 is second to none, they also boast the greatest number of international representatives of all New Zealand’s Super Rugby sides.
Front-rowers Moody, Bower and Codie Taylor all travelled to Australia for this year’s Tri-Nations competition while Michael Alaalatoa is a regular for Samoa.
All five of the Crusaders’ locks, Mitchell Dunshea, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange, Sam Whitelock and captain Scott Barrett, have spent time in camp with the All Blacks.
Elsewhere, loose forward Cullen Grace, halves Mitchell Drummond, Bryn Hall, Richie Mo’unga and Brett Cameron, midfielders Braydon Ennor and Jack Goodhue, and outside backs David Havili, Will Jordan, George Bridge and Sevu Reece, have all teed off against international opposition.
All-in-all, the Crusaders have 14 capped All Blacks to call on. It would be a huge surprise if that number didn’t grow by the end of the 2021 season.
The Crusaders open their 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign against their southern neighbours, the Highlanders, in Dunedin on February 26.
Crusaders squad for 2021:
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