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The end of the golden era? The big questions for the Crusaders to answer in 2024

By Ned Lester
Richie Mo'unga Levi Aumua; the past and future of the Crusaders. Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images and Phil Walter/Getty Images

The Crusaders are at the beginning of a new era and it remains to be seen whether, like for the last seven years, the road to the Super Rugby title will go through Christchurch.

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The team’s headline departures are generational, but will the infamous Crusaders culture – and the academy feeding it – produce the goods and keep the team in contention?

After a historically long period of dominance, it’s hard to imagine the team being anything other than the gold standard. But, some huge questions need answering.

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How influential was Richie Mo’unga on the team’s results?

Of all the shoes to be filled in 2024, perhaps none loom larger than those of Richie Mo’unga. A man who lifted seven Super Rugby titles in as many years, influential in each win as a composed leader and constant threat.

The Crusaders’ familiar backup No 10, Fergus Burke, will be sidelined until roughly round seven with an Achilles injury, meaning the jersey is up for grabs. New Crusaders coach Rob Penney has already signalled that despite the youth of his remaining options at the position, he’s unlikely to be tempted by the idea of shifting either David Havili or Leigh Halfpenny into first five-eighth.

And so, the 20-year-old Taha Kemara and the 23-year-old Rivez Reihana will race to make the jersey their own while the opportunity presents itself.

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How legitimate can a team’s title ambitions be with a Super Rugby rookie at the helm for half the season? How quickly can Burke return to form once cleared to take the field?

Burke will have additional motivation to perform after reports that Scotland are looking to recruit the 24-year-old as a potential successor to Finn Russel’s throne.

However, the crux of the point remains; just how high is Burke’s ceiling? Those familiar with the youngster’s mindset and skillset alike are without doubt he holds the potential to grow into an international level 10, but Mo’unga was much more than that.

The shoes Burke must fill hold MVP weight, and Mo’unga’s relationship with David Havili spans well over half a decade. Championship chemistry is not built overnight, but Burke isn’t new to the players around him either.

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You can expect the Crusaders’ succession planning to have been extensive and Mo’unga’s mentorship to have been influential. It won’t be the same, but Burke has championship pedigree.

What’s behind the Tamati Ellison hype?

Ellison didn’t wait until he had finished his playing career to become a coach, instead beginning his coaching journey while simultaneously playing for the Ricoh Black Rams in Japan.

Since cracking the Crusaders ranks in 2021, he’s been a key contributor in three Super Rugby titles as well as Wellington’s success in the NPC.

Players in his environments are wildly complementary of the former All Black’s personable coaching style, a trait the Crusaders capitalised on by handing him the role of position-specific player development in addition to his duties assisting the team’s defence.

Word on the street after Rob Penney was named as Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson’s successor was that the veteran coach would act as something of a mentor for Ellison, who is seen as the next big thing for the Crusaders.

Just months later, Ellison was unveiled as a member of the All Blacks coaching staff, with Razor handing him the role of contact skills coach, focusing on the tackle and breakdown area. It’s no coincidence Ellison’s inclusion in the national setup in this role allows him to continue his Crusaders responsibilities.

Penney’s two-year contract provides the perfect timeline for the final stages of Ellison’s progression into a Super Rugby coach, and in the meantime, you can expect his voice and influence within the camp to grow.

What does that mean for 2024? Like the playing talent the Crusaders are looking to foster this year, their off-field talent is also maturing. The growth that can be made in ’24 without the constant guidance of Robertson will be a huge factor in the team’s ability to win late in the season.

Can they keep everyone happy?

There are clearly huge upsides to having an academy as effective as the Crusaders’, but the sheer volume of talent being produced in addition to a signing like Levi Aumua has made for a significant backlog.

The props and midfield pose the biggest challenges when it comes to selection, with at least four All Blacks vying for two starting positions in both areas.

The aforementioned arrival of former Moana Pasifika bruiser Aumua is a boost to the stocks of a midfield that already boasts names like David Havili, Braydon Ennor, Dallas McLeod and a returning Ryan Crotty.

Meanwhile, props like Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams have proven their chops as capable Rugby World Cup participants, but the return to health of Joe Moody and George Bower along with the reintroduction of Owen Franks will push the youngsters for minutes.

Can the team continue to develop their young players while building chemistry with regular starters? Scott Robertson had buy-in from the team, but he also had a mountain of injuries to manage in 2023. Penney is now charged with deciding whether it is time for a changing of the guard.

The list of names pushing for starting honours will continue to grow, and they come inconveniently away from positions vacated by departing former All Blacks Richie Mo’unga and Sam Whitelock. Aside from the aforementioned midfield and prop options, there are players like George Bell at 2, Christian Lio-Willie at 8 and Noah Hotham at 9. Oh, and a fella by the name of Leigh Halfpenny who plays the same position as Will Jordan.

These are big mouths to feed, and there’s a real chance some could go hungry in 2024.

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Can the golden era outlive its talisman?

Scott Robertson’s time with the Crusaders was one title shy of perfect. The 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title was the only bit of silverware Razor didn’t win while head coach of the red and black. That being said, the Crusaders still went undefeated in that comp.

After seven years of success, the Razor influence is engrained in the daily habits of all returning players and staff in the Crusaders environment, but how will that look under a new regime?

Rob Penney is a fine head coach, an experienced head with a love for the region who will uphold the club’s strong sense of value, but the turnover in personnel will expose just how much fuel Razor was feeding the Crusaders machine.

Robertson had deep and long-lasting relationships with not just every member of the club, but in many cases their families as well. That depth of connection added greatly to the team’s culture.

Not to mention from a tactical perspective, Robertson leaves and takes with him attack coach Scott Hansen, just a season after forwards coach Jason Ryan departed for the All Blacks.

The brains of the operation will take some replacing, and so too will the relationships.

Was it Razor? Was it Richie? Was it the culture?

What would a Crusaders title in 2024 tell us? Would it tell us that even the residual Razor effect is enough to claim gold? Would it tell us that the coach is overrated and that it was the Crusaders’ culture and talent that did the work?

Would it tell us that Richie Mo’unga’s exploits were more entertaining than impactful? Or, similarly, would it inform us that his mentorship of the young playmakers validates the club’s impressive track record with succession planning?

If holes begin to appear in the Crusaders’ game plan, what will they tell us about the strengths of the new All Blacks coach? If they don’t appear, what will that tell us about Rob Penney and the likelihood of any other team ever winning this competition?

With all the factors at play, it’s hard to envision a future where any of these questions find decisive answers, but the speculation will be endless. Both the Crusaders and All Blacks records will be scrutinised but the likelihood is that both will perform well, and win at an elite rate as they so often do.

But that championship magic, will it elude the team in 2024? That spark, that X-factor, that Crusaders class, that final one per cent; will the newcomers breathe life into those burning embers left for them and see the club begin its new era the way it finished the last?

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J
Jon 2 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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