Don’t let the title deceive you – the Crusaders remain firm favourites to claim an unprecedented 10th title.
With 10 wins and three draws from 15 outings, the reigning back-to-back champions lead the competition with 53 points – nine clear of their closest competitors, the Hurricanes – and they can finalise their position as the top seed heading into the quarter-finals against the out-of-form Rebels in Christchurch this weekend.
Given how clinically the Crusaders performed for the majority of the season, first place would be their rightful finishing position leading into the play-offs.
Scott Robertson’s men have largely continued the vein of form that saw them clinch the 2017 and 2018 titles in comprehensive fashion, and big wins against the Chiefs, Hurricanes, Highlanders, Lions and Bulls this year has underlined their dominance.
The additions of youngsters Sevu Reece and Will Jordan to the side this year has been a major success, with the two outside backs adding pace, power and finishing prowess to a side that boasts exponential amounts of experience and talent across the board.
Their breadth of depth within the squad is unparalleled in the competition, to the point where even in the absence of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, George Bridge and Ryan Crotty through either injury or the All Blacks’ resting policy, the Crusaders still managed to churn out victories in convincing fashion.
Consequently, throughout the opening two-and-a-half months of this year’s Super Rugby, it looked as though the Crusaders were going to be insurmountable en route to a third successive crown.
That was until Friday, May 3.
Fresh from their 36-10 dismantling of the Lions in a re-match of the last two Super Rugby finals, the Crusaders had strengthened their lead at the summit of the table, sitting atop of the standings with 40 points to their name, eight ahead of the Hurricanes.
Preparing to face the touring Sharks – who have a favourable record against Kiwi opposition in recent seasons – in Christchurch the following week, Robertson named a side that excluded star playmaker Richie Mo’unga.
The 25-year-old pivot was handed the second of his two mandatory All Blacks rest weeks by Robertson, and was replaced in the starting lineup by reserve first-five Mitch Hunt.
The loss of Mo’unga’s tactical nous, astute boot and strong running game was profound, as the much-fancied Crusaders had to rely on a try and conversion from Hunt in injury time to salvage an unlikely 21-all draw against a Sharks side that capitalised on the ill-discipline of the hosts via the tidy goal-kicking of Curwin Bosch.
It was a surprising and unsettling result for the Crusaders, who hopped on a plane shortly afterwards and ventured into South Africa, where a conference-leading Bulls side awaited them in Pretoria.
The much-needed return of Mo’unga paid dividends, as he and Reece shone in a 45-13 romp at Loftus Versfeld.
Reece scored a hat-trick of tries, largely thanks to the playmaking skill of Mo’unga, who bagged a brace himself and supplemented a further five conversions to bring his personal points tally for the match to 20.
Such a competent display against supposedly the best side in South Africa made the Sharks stalemate seem like a blip in the almost unblemished record the Crusaders had maintained throughout their season.
Then came the ill-fated second leg of their tour in Cape Town.
Once again, the Crusaders were made to pay for their infringements thanks to the boot of Jean-Luc du Plessis, who landed four penalties and converted Siya Kolisi’s try to cancel out a three-try effort by the visitors, resulting in a 19-all draw.
Much was made of a disallowed try to Reece due to a forward pass by Braydon Ennor in the closing stages which would have assured the Crusaders of victory, but it was again the discipline of the tourists which cost them a 100 percent winning record in the Republic.
What followed in the wake of that contest, though, seems to have left a much larger dent in the Crusaders’ title ambitions than the two draws they endured in the preceding three weeks.
Two incidents that occurred during their tour sparked the calling out of Bridge and Mo’unga on social media by South African locals for their alleged antics during separate nights out.
Bridge was accused of displaying homophobic behaviour towards patrons at a McDonald’s outlet, while Mo’unga was accused of spitting beer and inappropriately touching a woman at a bar.
The former has vehemently denied the accusations directed towards him, while Mo’unga apologised for his actions.
Both instances caused a frenzy across the southern hemisphere, leading the Crusaders to call in top lawyer Steph Dyhrberg to coordinate an investigation, which is still ongoing, into both incidents.
Neither Bridge nor Mo’unga were stood down following the revelations, but it appears the impact of the accusations made against the two players has had a lingering effect on not just them, but the whole team.
A week after the Cape Town fracas, the Crusaders hosted the Blues in Christchurch in a match they were widely expected to win in a landslide result.
The Blues had become renowned for their inability to overcome New Zealand opposition and to win outside of Auckland, while the Crusaders hadn’t lost a Super Rugby match in Christchurch since July 2016, and in cold, dewey conditions with an extremely experienced starting forward pack which boasted 191 test caps at their disposal, victory looked imminent.
Granted, the Crusaders came away from the clash 19-11 victors, but the result came a lot tougher for them than most expected.
The Blues fronted up in the tight battles to make life difficult for the hosts, who were fortunate for an opportunistic piece of play that saw Mo’unga and Crotty link up to put Bryn Hall away under the posts for their only try of the match.
That underwhelming win didn’t bode well for the Crusaders ahead of their next fixture, last week’s clash against the Chiefs in Suva.
It was a scintillating 10-try shootout between the two rivals in the Fijian capital, but it was a match that shocked the competition, as the battling Chiefs, who languished deep in the bottom half of the table and faced the prospect of not featuring in the finals for the first time since 2011, overturned a 20-0 deficit inside the opening 20 minutes to run away 40-27 winners.
No doubt it was a thoroughly entertaining encounter for the neutrals, but anyone associated with the Crusaders should be concerned with the shambolic nature of which their side allowed the Chiefs back into the match after such a rapid start.
Key players from the Crusaders went missing throughout the contest, with Mo’unga perhaps the most anonymous of the lot.
His trademark cross kicks to the wings were barely seen, if at all, and his ball running and playmaking qualities were nullified to the point where he played a minimal or no part in any of his side’s four tries, something onlookers aren’t used to seeing from someone who has scored four tries, assisted another four, made six line breaks and assisted a further five from 12 appearances this season.
Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, David Havili, Mitchell Drummond, Whetu Douglas and George Bower all had significant lapses on defence which led to Chiefs tries, while replacement hooker Ben Funnell had a shocker at the lineouts, allowing the Hamilton side to keep their faint play-off hopes alive.
It was difficult not to be shocked by such a stunning turn of events at ANZ Stadium, but after looking back through the last month of action, it was the Crusaders’ fourth poor effort in five matches, and while they remain at the top of the Super Rugby standings, they can’t be assured of a third straight crown if their performances continue on this downward spiral.
It may have been discipline that cost them their matches against the Sharks and Stormers, but the developing revelations of what happened in Cape Town looks to have had a lasting psychological effect on a side that previously looked unstoppable.
This isn’t the first time off-field drama has influenced the on-field performances of the Crusaders this year, with the side making a raft of uncharacteristic mistakes in their 20-12 loss to the Waratahs in Sydney a week after the Christchurch shootings.
The fallout of that tragedy included the persisting debate as to whether the franchise should change its name out of respect to the Muslim community within Christchurch, but, aside from the Waratahs clash, not even that seemed to have an impact on the Crusaders’ output on the park, as they swiftly bounced back to win four games on the trot.
The same can’t be said following their indiscretions in South Africa, and while just a solitary bonus point is all that is required from the Crusaders to secure top spot in the standings when they host the Rebels – who are in a far better position than the Chiefs – on Saturday, nobody should expect a romp as might have previously been anticipated before the capitulation in Suva.
Nevertheless, the Crusaders remain title favourites, but if they’re to become just the second side in Super Rugby history to win a hat-trick of titles, then their Cape Town-induced slump in form needs to be promptly vanquished.
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