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Crusaders banking on new era of loose forwards after haemorrhaging experience

By Tom Vinicombe
The Crusaders will be relying on a new generation of loose forwards in 2020. (Photos by Getty Images)

The Crusaders created a dynasty between 1998 and 2011 when they won seven Super Rugby titles.


The wheels fell off a little bit after Robbie Deans left to take up a role with the Wallabies but Scott Robertson’s appointment in 2017 saw instant success.

The red and black machine has now reasserted themselves as Super Rugby’s top dogs with three championships on the trot.

Robertson wasn’t the only change at the franchise, however.

Since the former player’s appointment, he’s brought in a range of talented players that have had key roles in the Crusaders’ success.

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2017 saw Mitchell Dunshea, Bryn Hall and George Bridge make their debuts. 2018 and 2019 saw the introduction of Billy Harmon, Braydon Ennor, Will Jordan and Sevu Reece.

These fresh young talents have helped propel the Crusaders back to the top of the table – but that’s not to say that the older legion haven’t played an important part in the franchise’s success.

All Blacks Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Matt Todd, Owen Franks, Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty have been key cogs for the Crusaders over the last decade – and all six of those players will be absent in 2020.


In fact, across the board, the Crusaders have lost influential men.

At the end of a World Cup cycle, it’s become common to see older players move on to more financially rewarding roles. The Crusaders, who have always provided a handy number of men to the national side, have been the hardest hit of New Zealand’s franchises.

Along with the previously mentioned six, the Crusaders will have to cope without Tim Perry, Ben Funnell, Jordan Taufua, Mitchell Hunt and Tim Bateman next year.

As any good team should, the Crusaders have been preparing for the losses, filtering through young talent players throughout the years to help them adjust to the level required for Super Rugby.


Still, no matter the quality of those succession plans, they won’t make up for the 1100-plus caps that have headed offshore.

Perhaps the fast-developing Andrew Makalio can cover for Ben Funnell and Samoan international Michael Alaalatoa can step into Frank’ shoes – and there’s plenty of talent across the backline to cover the likes of Hunt, Crotty and Dagg, but it’s in the loose forwards where the Crusaders may struggle in 2020.

In Read, Todd and Taufua, the Crusaders have lost a loose forward trio averaging over 130 caps. No team in the competition can even come close to competing with that experience and regardless of the potential of the players that will stepping into the vacated roles in 2020, there’s going to be a noticeable drop.

Only a year prior, the Crusaders also lost Pete Samu – now a Wallaby – and Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, who showing a surprisingly good turn of form for the Crusaders but then struggled to earn any game-time at the Hurricanes.

The net result is that the Crusaders have four players on their books in 2020 who will be entering their debut season of Super Rugby: Tom Christie, Cullen Grace, Ethan Roots and Sione Havili.

There’s plenty to like about the new quartet, who will make no doubt make up for their lack of experience with youthful exuberance.

Christie, former captain of Shirley Boys’ High School, spent two years in the New Zealand Under 20 side and is one of the most promising openside flankers in the country. Robertson will be hopeful that Christie can showcase the same sort of skills that made the likes of Todd and Richie McCaw such exceptional players.

Grace, who captained the Timaru Boys’ first XV, spent his formative years in the second row but will likely be called upon to cover the blindside flank due to the logjam of talent that the Crusaders still have in the locks, despite Whitelock’s departure. Grace is yet to play a game of provincial rugby.

Roots, who has travelled south from North Harbour, was the top tackler in the 2019 Mitre 10 Cup, with 144 to his name. Roots can cover both blindside flanker and number 8 and could find himself thrust into a starting role early thanks to the departure of Read as well as the early-season absence of Ethan Blackadder, who has undergone shoulder surgery.

That leaves Havili, who earned one cap for the Blues in 2018. The Tasman flanker was one of the Mitre 10 Cup premier’s best players throughout their successful campaign – which is saying something, considering the talented loose forwards they had at their disposal. Havili was awarded the Golden Boot award in 2016 as the nation’s top schoolboy player and could be used anywhere in the Crusaders’ loose forward trio, though shone out on the openside flank for Tasman.

With 22-year-old Roots the oldest of the four, the Crusaders will be heavily dependant on the experience of the loosies that have remained with the team from 2019 – but even that doesn’t push the average age up much.

28-year-old Whetu Douglas is comfortably the oldest of the lot, with Tom Sanders, Billy Harmon and Ethan Blackadder all 25 or younger.

All-in-all, the Crusaders’ loose forward trio of yesteryear is long gone, which could make things tricky for season’s champions when the competition kicks off at the end of the month.

Regardless, Scott Robertson will have plenty of faith in his inexperienced charges and clearly knows how to get the best out of young players, having coached the New Zealand Under 20 side for two years.

The 2020 Crusaders may not resemble the team of old, but you’d be foolish to write off their chances simply due to the freshness of the loose forwards. In their new recruits, they have players with boundless potential, while their slightly more wizened players have served their apprenticeships well.

The Kieran Read era may be over, but that doesn’t mean the Crusaders dynasty will come to an end.

WATCH: The Crusaders were very close to losing head coach Scott Robertson to the national set-up.

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