Why the Crusaders have an unfair advantage over their Super Rugby Aotearoa rivals
Stockpiling of talent.
All Super Rugby coaches would love to go five deep in one position.
Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan could be forgiven for casting an envious eye at Scott Robertson’s locking riches at the Crusaders.
The red and blacks are choosing from Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Quinten Strange, Mitch Dunshea and Luke Romano. That is three All Blacks and two fringe ABs. Great for the Crusaders, ridiculous for the competition.
The draft system in the early days of Super Rugby had its flaws, but the premise on which it was founded – to spread the top talent relatively evenly throughout the five franchises – was sound.
When central contracting was embedded a few years ago – allowing the Chiefs, for example, to sign Brodie Retallick from outside their borders from the 2012 season – it seemed like a triumph for the open market. Players could go where they liked to further their career and not have to rely on some coach’s goodwill in the draft if they were not in the protected 24 or so.
But Ian Foster, seeking to build his second-row depth, will surely not be happy with the Crusaders having a quality quintet, no pun intended, of fours and fives on their books. Not when the Chiefs, to use them again as an example, have no Retallick, and are banking on two 21-year-olds (Tupou Vaa’i and Naitoa Ah Kuoi) and a 20-year-old (Josh Lord) to do the business in 2021, aided by a workhorse who is more suited to the blindside (Mitch Brown).
The other Chiefs locking tyro – Laghlan McWhannell – is 22, but has never pulled on a Chiefs jersey due to a hellish run with injury. McMillan can talk about promise and the future, but the future is now, and he needs results. He needs tough veterans in the middle of the pack.
Whitelock and Barrett will, all things being equal, be the starting locks for the Crusaders in 2021. Off the bench will come Strange, who would be an All Black now were it not for an untimely injury last season. He is 24 and will still see plenty of game time, but the Highlanders were very keen on him to be a regular starter. Strange rebuffed them, leading to Tony Brown going for Bryn Evans, 12 years past his peak, with all due respect, to bring some nous to a young, often injured, locking core.
Strange has decided to take his chance at the Crusaders until 2023, be patient if need be in the No 19 jersey, learn off Whitelock and Barrett, and try and keep the heat on the top dogs.
Dunshea was the unsung hero of the 2020 Crusaders pack, bringing such consistency to his work that he too found himself in the All Blacks squad. Where does he fit in if there are no injuries? He’s 22 games deep into his Crusaders career, but he could easily be a starter at the Chiefs, Highlanders or even the Blues.
Romano knows his role. He is 35 and has 134 caps under his belt. He loves keeping the youngsters on their toes, as witnessed by his Mitre 10 Cup form in the last three seasons. Not motivated by overseas money, Romano wants to stay close to his hunting haunts in rural Canterbury, but if called upon to start, Robertson knows his veteran will mark up.
Strange clearly loves the Crusaders, but it would be better for his burgeoning career if he were at the Chiefs or even Highlanders.
The Crusaders are the champs, and why wouldn’t you want to keep playing for the champs? But coaches should be satisfied with three-four deep at lock, not five deep.
There will be those who point the finger at the Blues, and their four All Blacks loosehead props. Maybe so, but they can fit all four into a match-day 23.
However, whilst Dillon Hunt is a good signing for the Blues, they do not need him, Dalton Papali’i and Blake Gibson as their opensides. One of them should have gone to the Crusaders or Highlanders. Maybe they will in 2022.
None of this will concern the Crusaders. They will argue that they create a winning culture that helps retain players, even when there is a logjam in their position. It all means that, other than depth at hooker, they have no apparent weaknesses as they drive for five.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now