Why the All Blacks would have concerns with Richie Mo'unga
After multiple seasons as the best player in the competition, his 2023 season was not his best vintage, but there were flashes of brilliance down the stretch as the Crusaders timed the run perfectly.
As a Crusader, Mo’unga has achieved more than Dan Carter in red and black. Although Carter still holds many individual point scoring records, the All Black great won three titles and lost four finals.
Carter’s last title was in 2008, during the back end of the career there were challenging seasons due to injuries and form, while Mo’unga has been critical each and every year in Robertson’s side in pulling off seven championships in a row.
Richie Mo’unga now lays claim to the greatest Super Rugby player in the competition’s history.
The obvious difference between the two 10s is Carter’s All Black career stands miles above where Mo’unga’s legacy in black sits.
It is easy to sit back and assume that Mo’unga and many of his teammates now command their selections in Foster’s All Black side.
There is however, one glaring and concerning aspect of Mo’unga’s performance in the final that has not been addressed that presents a troubling conundrum should it resurface at crunch time.
We know Mo’unga’s attacking game is world class. He is a clutch goal kicker and his game management is superior to Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie, proven once again in the Super Rugby Pacific final.
But the glaring flaw and unignorable elephant in the room is the defence. The Crusaders first five roamed the backfield on Saturday night for the most part and finished with three tackles from seven attempts.
Stevenson had zero doubts about rounding Mo’unga in cover defence instead of linking with his support either side. He was comfortably right.
The Chiefs’ scrum play early in the second half that led to a try to Emoni Narawa was designed to prey on Mo’unga.
Assigned one-on-one with McKenzie, the Chiefs’ No 10 drew his Crusader rival into light contact with a wider pass to centre Alex Nankivell, which was enough to create the yawning gap outside, by pulling Ennor further away from his inside man.
The out-ball, in-ball play for Stevenson inside Nankivell was perfectly timed to expose the Mo’unga-Ennor channel. France and Ireland take note if these two are playing together in black. Stevenson’s perfectly threaded pass to Narawa finished the strike move.
No less than four Crusader All Blacks failed to make a tackle as the play design and pass timing eluded them all.
Credit is due to the Chiefs backline, but France or Ireland are capable of the same level of play, if not better.
Mo’unga was saved by O’Keeffe’s officiating team on the deliberately overthrown lineout play which saw McKenzie blast up the seam from an offside position.
Despite the offside, Narawa made light work of the situation with the Crusaders’ 10 back-pedalling all ends up before being pushed out the way by the Chiefs’ right winger.
Ian Foster called out Stevenson’s defence as a work-on for his initial non-selection in the All Blacks squad. By the same logic then he must have massive issues with Mo’unga and whether to select him for the Test arena.
The All Black No 10 has to defend in the backfield, the same as a fullback like Stevenson would. That’s how the All Blacks’ defensive system works.
If Mo’unga is the last line of defence and he produces three from seven in a World Cup quarter-final, it is safe to say they will be on the next plane home from Paris.
As a 10, the Crusaders’ dynamo ticks all the boxes and has produced countless genius plays on attack. His Super Rugby career is unrivalled.
But it’s this one chink in the armour that will be targetted in a few months time. England already did so in 2019.
The All Blacks cannot hide him and Mo’unga can’t hide from the challenge ahead. In the toughest Tests there are no places to hide as the great teams will find every weakness.
His game-saving try on Blues’ No 8 Hoskins Sotutu earlier in the season showed that he can produce.
For the All Blacks’ sake he must.
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