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Rob Penney: 'It’s been a long time since the Crusaders have been in this sort of place'

By Ned Lester
Mitch Drummond reacts to the Crusaders loss. Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

The stat sheet isn’t looking kindly on the Crusaders’ opening two performances of the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season as questions swirl over the team’s direction.


There’s no hiding from those stats either, with turnovers dominating the run of play and often disrupting any chance at positive momentum for the reigning champions.

The changes within the team’s environment have been well documented, but the club have remained resolute in their confidence the departures haven’t dented their title aspirations or chances.

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While it wasn’t a smooth sailing start to the campaign in 2023 either, a losing excursion to Fiji to face the Drua this week could see the team subjected to their worst start to a season since 1996. It’s a fixture they were famously beaten in last year.

New coach Rob Penney acknowledges the team is underperforming, which is an unfamiliar feeling for a club with seven titles in as many years.

“I think we had 36 opportunities with the ball and 18 of them turned into errors and turnovers…we’re better than that,” Penney told 1News, reflecting on his side’s 24-37 loss to the Waratahs in Super Round.

“It’s never easy in an organisation that prides itself on being able to get across the line when challenging times occur.


“I’m not questioning the players’ resolve, it’s been a long time since the Crusaders have been in this sort of place.”


In addition to losing names like Richie Mo’unga, Sam Whitelock and Leicester Fainga’anuku, the Crusaders have been dealt injury blows in the form of Tamaiti Williams, Fergus Burke, Brayden Ennor, Ethan Blackadder, Leigh Halfpenny and Will Jordan.

The latter of which will miss the entire season with a shoulder injury, a “colossal loss” for the team.

“He’s massive, for a number of reasons,” Penney told media following Jordan’s injury news. “A world-class player, massive influence on the group.


“The injury’s been managed for a year or two, my understanding is it’s just got progressively worse. There may have been a little issue during the World Cup where it got aggravated once again.

“The conservative management component wasn’t as effective as we would have hoped, so he’s had the repair done.”

To help cover the loss of two world-class fullbacks, the team have drafted in a familiar face in Johnny McNicholl. Since leaving the club in 2016, McNicholl has earned over 120 caps for Scarlets and has 10 international caps to his name.

Penney said the 33-year-old may have been away for some time, but he knows what the club is about.

“He has a massive history here… he’s a Crusader, he gets it.”


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Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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FEATURE Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks