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How will Scott Robertson keep a full house of barnstorming backs satisfied?

By Tom Vinicombe
Leicester Fainga'anuku and Will Jordan. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Photosport)

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The Crusaders may have taken a few hits in the forwards in the Super Rugby off-season, losing the likes of Michael Alaalatoa, Andrew Makalio, Luke Romano, Whetukamokamo Douglas and Tom Sanders to other clubs, but they’ll once again start the year with unparalleled depth in the backs.

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The only full-time backline members to have departed following last season are Ereatara Enari, Brett Cameron and Manasa Mataele, who collectively managed just three starts between them in 2021. In their places, Scott Robertson has picked up former All Blacks Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, experienced Super Rugby campaigner Simon Hickey, and Kini Naholo, one of the most devastating young wingers in the country.

Even without those new additions, simply juggling the talents on offer from last season will prove a massive challenge for Robertson, with many of the selection decisions last year dictated by injury.

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The eight-week pre-season that saved Siya Kolisi’s career.
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After six straight starts in the No 13 jersey to kick off last year’s campaign, a ruptured ACL saw the All Black miss the latter half of the campaign. Fellow test representatives George Bridge and Braydon Ennor were also only available for small chunks of the season, which gave opportunities to the likes of Dallas McLeod, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Mataele.

Fainga’anuku, in particular, emerged as an impressive force in the midfield or on the wing and ended the season with 13 starts to his name – the same number as Richie Mo’unga, and the equal-most of any Crusader in the competition.

Meanwhile, some of last year’s new arrivals to the squad, such as Chay Fihaki and Isaiah Punivai, spent the vast majority of the season on the training field and getting the odd run out for the Crusaders Knights development side.

While injuries will inevitably also see some players struck down throughout the coming season – and Covid protocols will also likely play a part – Robertson may find himself struggling to regularly get all his cattle on the park.

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David Havili, Goodhue, Ennor and Fainga’anuku are all serious options in the midfield while the latter three could also feature on the wings.

Havili, of course, could play just about anywhere in the backline but found a home at No 12 last year and after an extended run of games there with the All Blacks, will surely continue in that role for the Crusaders. His partnership with Fainga’anuku brought the brains with the brawn but Goodhue will likely be given the first chance at outside centre, meaning Fainga’anuku and Ennor would have to settle for spots in the outside backs.

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Of course, it’s not like the Crusaders are short of talent out wide either, with both George Bridge and Sevu Reece suiting up for the national side this year, while Fihaki and Punivai’s performances for Canterbury last year indicated they’re ready for the challenges of Super Rugby.

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Then there’s the World Rugby Breakout Player of the Year for last season, Will Jordan, who will presumably wear No 15 for the Crusaders, even if it’s on the wing where he made such a positive impact for the All Blacks.

While the many options available is a good headache for Robertson to have, it could lead to a few uncomfortable conversations during the season – and possibly ahead of 2023.

The Crusaders players have always indicated that the great competition at the club brings out the best in them but the depth appears to be reaching a breaking point; there’s simply no way for all of their top players to be regularly accommodated in the backline, at that might force some of them to look elsewhere.

Reece, Bridge and Jordan all have contracts ending this season while the likes of Goodhue, Ennor, Fainga’anuku and Havili have an additional year to run on their deals with the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby.

Given the fact that all those players bar Fainga’anuku are All Blacks and the competition for spots in the national squad is so fierce, some of those players may be best served heading elsewhere around the country and 2022 could play a big part in determining who stays and who goes.

The Crusaders have all the backline talent they need to continue their storming run of success in Super Rugby for another season but if the full contingent are available for the bulk of the season, some players may find themselves pushed out of the first-choice side – which could lead to some tough decisions.

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