It seems strange to say it, but the Crusaders are sneaking up on the rails. While the Chiefs lead the way on the Super Rugby Pacific table after 13 rounds, still two games clear of everyone else, the Crusaders have been quietly able to build into their season out of the spotlight.
It is an unaccustomed position for the men from Christchurch. With their long, unbroken history of trophy-lifting in Super Rugby, they very rarely get the chance to play the underdog, or come in under anyone’s radar.
That is especially true at the traditional play-making spots, where Beauden Barrett’s patchy form has provoked a very public wringing of hands and tearing of hair in New Zealand. At the same time, the Chiefs’ winning run has rightly promoted the claims of Damian McKenzie to the All Blacks’ number 10 jersey. The focus on both men has removed most of the usual pressure from the shoulders of Richie Mo’unga, David Havili and Will Jordan.
Ex-All Blacks scrumhalf turned outspoken telly pundit, Justin Marshall, can envisage all three of Mo’unga, Barrett and McKenzie being picked for the tournament in France. As he recently commented on SENZ’s The Rugby Run:
“I think [Barrett] goes probably because you need to take at least three 10s.
“One of those will probably be, I would imagine, someone like Damian McKenzie, who can play 10 and 15 because that gives you the ability to have an X-factor player – even though I’m very adamant about them getting the right jersey on.
“I think he [Barrett] is one of the only unique situations of a guy that can just adapt from week to week and play that position at the highest quality.
“Should Richie Mo’unga fall over, would you trust Damian McKenzie, or whoever else you want to pick, to go out to guide the team in a Rugby World Cup final when you’ve got a guy that’s been to two World Cup finals before to get the job done?
“I think you need to have that type of player in your squad because he won’t be fazed, daunted, overawed by having to go out there and control the game and get the job done on the day.”
Combinations that have proven their value and understanding at Super Rugby level are more likely to be towed into the national starting XV in pressure games, and this where the Crusaders stand to score most heavily.
While others dominate the headlines, the red-and-black has been knitting together its backline combinations in the background.
At the Chiefs, Damian McKenzie plays as the primary play-maker without significant secondary support – at least until either Bryn Gatland or Josh Ioane enter the fray in the last half-hour. Their presence often frees up McKenzie to play his best attacking football, albeit more as a fullback than a first five-eighth. Beauden Barrett tends to play in harness with a second No 10 at fullback (Stephen Perofeta) who is only in the dim shadows of selection thinking for the full All Blacks side.
While others dominate the headlines, the red-and-black has been knitting together its backline combinations in the background, aided by the return of centre Jack Goodhue and more latterly, wing/fullback Jordan from injury. There is a very real chance that they will be as tight as knicker elastic by the time finals football arrives.
Another triumph when it counts could consolidate Richie Mo’unga’s hold on the national No 10 shirt, propel Will Jordan into contention as a fullback rather than a wing, and revive David Havili’s claims as a second five-eighth-cum-utility back for the World Cup squad.
It is clear forward thinking in selection and tactical policy which has kept the Crusaders at the top of the tree for so very long, and that is certainly applying to their use of Will Jordan after his return from a long-term injury. As Jeff Wilson recently remarked on Sky Sports The Breakdown, “He looks like a fullback.
“All of a sudden, I write down one more name.
“The Crusaders’ chances have significantly improved with him [Jordan] on the field.
“If he stays healthy and stays fit, playing fullback for that side, the chances of [the Crusaders] winning the competition are better than they have been all season.”
In reply to Sir John Kirwan’s testy question, “So he’s an All Black wing, that’s what you’re saying?”, Wilson responded firmly – and perhaps with his own Damascene conversion from No 14 to No 15 still somewhere in the back of his mind:
“No, he’s an All Black fullback.”
While David Havili is unlikely to unseat Beauden’s brother Jordie as the starting number 12, a titanic competition for the number 15 jersey could very easily develop between Beauden and Will Jordan.
The days of Will Jordan as ‘only’ an electric finisher and broken-field runner are numbered.
Jordan’s trump card in this regard is that the Crusaders are clearly evolving their attacking shapes to include him far more as a run/kick/pass triple threat, and therefore a rival for Barrett’s skill set at the back. The days of Will Jordan as ‘only’ an electric finisher and broken-field runner are numbered. The rest of the rugby world needs to sit up and take notice.
Will Jordan returned for the week 11 drubbing of the Force, tuning up for the crunch derby against the Blues in the following round. There were some hints about how the Crusaders want to develop Jordan’s All Blacks’ potential in his first game back:
Instead of being set up as the finisher, Jordan is playing provider at first receiver from an advancing scrum, with Leicester Fainga’anuku on the end of a long pass for the score on the left.
The raw stats from the Crusaders-Blues game the following week support the suspicion that Will Jordan’s role is both expanding and becoming more flexible:
There are a couple of developing areas of interest in the stats:
- Will Jordan overtook David Havili as the main support playmaker to Richie Mo’unga, with 13 touches at first receiver during play from set-piece and structured phases, and he even kicked three times. Havili was used mostly on heavy hits up the middle, with Jordan shouldering more of the burden of distribution.
- There was a roughly even division between the number of Mo’unga’s touches on runs and passes going from left to right (11) and right to left (8). There was a more noticeable bias in Jordan’s stats, with four of his six passes going right-to-left (as in the clip from the Force game), but all four runs moving in the opposite direction.
The pattern was set right from the opening kick-off:
Jordan is the main man in midfield, with Mo’unga out to his right and Havili manning the short side. When play bounces back in from the right touch, the Crusaders10 and 15 have not bothered to swap roles, and Jordan is still the key receiver creating space out on the far left for number 8 Cullen Grace.
Later in the same sequence the same pattern was repeated:
Will Jordan remains at first receiver with Richie Mo’unga following play from the backside. The kick down the far-left channel is made by a wing (Leicester Fainga’anuku), with second five-eighth David Havili chasing it beyond him. It was typical of the interchangeability within the red-and-black backs, which saw all seven starters feature at first receiver at some point during the game.
The Crusaders were keen to get Will Jordan on the ball as an alternate short-side alternate first receiver, with mixed results:
If there is one aspect of Will Jordan’s game that needs to improve if he is to become a bona fide triple threat at Test level, it is probably his kicking game. In the first clip, his kick from scrum goes straight into touch on the full, and two of his three kicks in the game overall had negative rather than positive outcomes.
A delivery off the left hand on the short side once again shows the willingness of the Crusaders to showcase Will Jordan’s passing at first receiver, even though Mo’unga is sitting right on his shoulder. Mo’unga is one of the very best left-to-right distributors anywhere on planet rugby.
At other times, Will Jordan came to the forefront quite literally, in the following example leaving both Mo’unga and Havili standing as he erupts right through the middle of a forward pod to become first cleanout support near the goal-line:
It was no different in the kicking game with Jordan on chase. Rather than utilising his speed in the wide channels via the cross-kick or kick-pass, Richie Mo’unga twice laid in well-weighted chips right down the middle. The young fullback chased out-to-in from the centre channel, with the second chip producing a line break just as the clock turned red:
The Crusaders have been typically well coordinated in their final assault on the Super Rugby Pacific 2023 title. With a couple of key backs coming back from injury at just the right moment, they have been content to fly largely under the radar and leave the headlines (for better or worse) to Damian McKenzie’s Chiefs and Beauden Barrett at the Blues.
With Goodhue, McLeod and Havili providing the midfield riches and Will Jordan fore-fronted at the back, there is every chance that success in the knockout stages of the tournament will drag two, or maybe even three players from the red-and-black into serious starting contention for the All Blacks at 10, 12 and 15 later in the season.
The Crusaders are showing every sign of wanting to develop Will Jordan as a triple-threat fullback to rival or surpass the 2023 version of Beauden Barrett, and they already have a 2022 regular (David Havili) supporting Richie Mo’unga in the passing and kicking games. The World Cup-winning All Blacks of Sir Graham Henry and Sir Steve Hansen were always based on a rock-solid Christchurch foundation. It may be no different in France this September when all the media dancing stops and the singing dies away.
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