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The Converted Crusaders

By Tom Vinicombe
Crusaders recruits Seta Tamanivalu and Bryn Hall celebrate together. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer / Getty Images)

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The Converted Crusaders


When the New Zealand Super Rugby squads were announced late last year, there were only six players that changed allegiances from the previous season.

Karl Tu’inukuafe and Levi Aumu moved from the Chiefs to the Blues, with Tumua Manu coming south in return. Bryn Gatland also left the Blues and headed to the Highlanders. He effectively replaced Fletcher Smith, who had signed with the Hurricanes. Finally, the Crusaders had no space for loose forward Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, who also relocated to the capital in search of more game time.

Compared to previous seasons, transfers were few and far between. We’ve come to expect upwards of ten as normal in this day and age, with a massive sixteen movements between 2012 and 2013.

What wasn’t surprising was that the Crusaders brought in no players from other franchises. Whilst other teams have had to regularly look elsewhere for talent to supplement players they’ve developed internally; the Crusaders rarely look to other teams to plug their gaps.

In fact, in the last five seasons, the Crusaders have only recruited six players who were already contracted to another Super Rugby team. In each case, they were either bringing an old boy home or trying to replace an experienced player – something they couldn’t do from just their own catchment pool. They haven’t all turned out to be superstars, but they’ve all done their part in their stints with Super Rugby’s most successful team.

Tom Sanders
Transferred in 2018


Sanders was part of the Crusaders development side for the 2015 season. As is tradition, the region was flush with loose forwards and the Lincoln High School alumnus found himself behind the likes of Kieran Read, Jimmy Tupou, Luke Whitelock and Jordan Taufua.

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie, never one to miss an opportunity, smartly recruited Sanders for the 2016 season. Over two seasons, Sanders earned 20 caps for the Waikato team, regularly running out at either blindside flanker or number 8.

Sanders, however, is a Canterbury man through-and-through and is now nearing a half century with the provincial side. Once his contract with the Chiefs expired at the end of 2017, he saw an opportunity to return to his home region for Super Rugby and push for a place in the loose forwards. With Whitelock and Tupou heading elsewhere, Sanders had less competition than when he began his Super career – and had a bit of experience behind him too.

Sanders won eight caps in 2018 but has spent 2019 on the sidelines. He has only recently undergone a shoulder reconstruction and will be out of the game for at least the near future.


With young loosies like Ethan Blackadder arriving on the scene, Sanders will be hopeful that a spot will still be available for him in the Crusaders’ ranks when he finally returns.

Bryn Hall
Transferred in 2017

Hall was raised in Auckland and made his provincial debut for North Harbour in 2012. He was quickly ushered into the Blues side and found himself competing with the likes of Jamison Gibson-Park and Piri Weepu. Although he struggled for game time initially, he slowly developed his skills and eventually became the first-choice halfback for the Blues in 2014. His 2015 season was a write off due to a broken foot but new coach Tana Umaga kept the faith and instilled Hall as the starting halfback upon his return in 2016.

That was to be Hall’s last season with the franchise, however, as the Crusaders found themselves in need of a new halfback after stalwart Andy Ellis decided to head overseas at the 2016 season and Hall fit the bill. Hall relocated to the Canterbury region for his Super Rugby – but remained in the north for the Mitre 10 Cup.

Whilst some were calling for Hall to be elevated to the national side after his form with the Blues, there’s no question that his game has developed significantly since his transfer. His kicking game is one of the best in the country and perfectly suits the Crusaders’ strengths.

Hall is now closing in on a half-century for the Crusaders and finds himself job-sharing with Mitchell Drummond.

Seta Tamanivalu
Transferred in 2017

Tamanivalu, who was born in Fiji, had already been capped for the All Blacks when the Crusaders came calling.

After a breakout 2014 provincial season with Taranaki, the Chiefs won Tamanivalu’s signature and the brought the damaging ball runner in as a centre-cum-wing. Although he initially struggled for game time, come 2015 Tamanivalu was firmly entrenched as one of the Chiefs’ key strike players. With Charlie Ngatai, Anton Lienert-Brown and Andrew Horrell adept at centre and the likes of Lelia Masaga, Tim Nanai-Williams and Asaeli Tikoirotuma in the outside backs, there was plenty of chopping and changing at the Chiefs on a weekly basis. Still, Tamanivalu had enough game time to earn an All Blacks call up.

When Scott Robertson took over as Crusaders coach in 2017, he was in need of a powerful outside back to replace Namani Nadolo. Tamanivalu had terrorised the Crusaders in his two previous seasons and so he was seen as the ideal replacement.

At the Crusaders, Tamanivalu had consistent game time and found himself parked on the wing most weekends. He amassed 33 caps over two season – indicating how valuable he was to the Crusaders over both their title runs.

Tamanivalu now plays for Bordeaux Bègles in France.

Marty McKenzie
Transferred in 2016

In rugby terms, McKenzie is a complete nomad.

McKenzie started his schooling in Gore but was lured to Christchurch where he played in the Christ’s College First XV. He then returned to Southland to play his provincial rugby and was eventually signed by the Blues for the 2013 season. McKenzie only made three appearances that season and his services weren’t required for 2014. He then relocated to Taranaki for the Mitre 10 Cup and has represented them ever since – though this year he will return home to Southland.

In 2015, the Chiefs picked up McKenzie. They already had his younger brother, now-All Black Damian on the books and his ability to cover both first five and fullback was welcomed. After one year with the Chiefs in Hamilton, however, it was again time for a change.

After the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the Crusaders lost three All Blacks first fives in the form of Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor. They needed someone with a bit of experience they could turn to if their new talent, Richie Mo’unga, didn’t quite work out. McKenzie returned to the city where he completed his schooling and linked up with the Crusaders on a two-year contract.

Lo’ and behold, the Cruaders didn’t really need a fall-back option for Mo’unga, who has now developed into a one of the best first fives in the competition. McKenzie managed nine appearances for the Crusaders – primarily off the bench or at fullback, and transferred back to the Chiefs for the 2018 year. He is now their starting number 10.

Robbie Fruean
Transferred in 2015

Fruean was a sensation in age grade rugby, winning IRB Under-19 Player of the Year in 2007. He made his debut for Wellington in that same year and was eventually selected for the Hurricanes as just a 19-year-old, after recovering from open-heart surgery required due to a rheumatic heart disease.

Then the Crusaders came calling. Fruean is one of the few players that the Crusaders have actively recruited from another province after they’ve already played provincial rugby. He was touted as a future superstar and the Crusaders had on their hands one of the most promising players in New Zealand rugby.

Fruean formed a devastating combination with Sonny Bill Williams for both Canterbury and the Crusaders. He was on track to make the All Blacks when his heart condition reared its head once more and his future as a rugby player came into question.

After a small break away from the game, Fruean was picked up by the Chiefs for the 2014 season. In his debut game he scored a try in a win against his old team.

It was after the 2014 season that Fruean returned to the Crusaders – but he never quite reached the heights that were expected of him.

Fruean has recently retired from the game due to his ongoing health issues.

Ged Robinson
Transferred in 2015

Like McKenzie, Robinson was somewhat of a nomad at provincial level, running out for Manawatu, Wellington and Hawke’s Bay before finally settling in Canterbury.

Also like McKenzie, Robinson was recruited to join the Crusaders when they lost an experienced stalwart – this time it was Super Rugby centurion Corey Flynn. Flynn finished up with the Crusaders at the end of 2014 and coach Todd Blackadder needed an experienced head to complement young guns Codie Taylor and Ben Funnell.

Robinson was plying his trade with the Highlanders in 2014, having almost earned 50 caps in Melbourne for the Rebels in the years prior. What he offered on the field was probably less useful than the wisdom he offered off the field, having represented a number of different teams in his professional career.

Robinson played only four matches for the Crusaders over two season with Taylor and Funnell sharing most of the workload – but no doubt he contributed significantly to the Crusaders culture and aided in the development of the other promising hookers in the squad.

Having retired from professional rugby, Robinson is now the rugby development officer for Canterbury’s Rolleston club.

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