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RUGBYPASS+ The big asterisk for the Crusaders in 2022

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The big asterisk for the Crusaders in 2022
7 months ago

For good reason, the Crusaders will enter the coming season of the newly re-branded Super Rugby Pacific as competition favourites.

For a second year running they were crowned champions of Super Rugby Aotearoa – perhaps the toughest club competition in the world – and maintained their high standards throughout the addended Trans-Tasman tournament, even if they didn’t feature in the grand final.

There are simply no weaknesses throughout their squad; whether you try to take them on in the forwards or in the backs, you’re likely to come out second best.

The Crusaders secured the Super Rugby Aotearoa title in 2021 for a second season on the trot. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Since Scott Robertson took over as head coach in 2017, the Crusaders have lost just nine matches, averaging fewer than two a season, and the smart money would be on them maintaining a similar record in the coming campaign.

There is, however, one major asterisk heading into the 2022 season.

While the Crusaders have dominated all and sundry with Robertson in charge, there’s been another important constant in the side over the past five years: flyhalf Richie Mo’unga.

Mo’unga made his Super Rugby debut the year before Robertson came on board and has featured 82 times for the red and black machine since. Just 10 times throughout his Super Rugby career has he tasted defeat, with just five of those losses coming under Robertson’s tutelage

He won’t be around for the first couple of rounds, but we’re just trying to decide what happens after that.

Scott Robertson on Richie Mo’unga availability for 2022

It’s an enviable record – one which you don’t imagine will be tarnished much if at all in the years to come.

Of course, that means that of the Crusaders’ nine losses under Robertson, four have taken place when Richie Mo’unga was absent – and therein lies the problem.

Mo’unga is set for an extended break to kick off the season and will be absent for at least the first three weeks of the competition while the New Zealand sides are based in Queenstown. Just because Mo’unga will be available to play from the fourth round of the season onwards, however, he won’t necessarily be immediately ready for action, given the limited rugby he will have had under his belt.

“He won’t be around for the first couple of rounds, but we’re just trying to decide what happens after that,” Robertson said during the pre-season. “He needs a little bit of footy, the development games we normally play against the Highlanders or Hurricanes are highly likely to be off. We need to get him some footy, but we’re trying to get all the information before we make a decision.”

Richie Mo’unga has one of the most dangerous running games of any player in Super Rugby. (Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

With the Australian sides as well as Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua involved in the competition this year, a delayed start for Mo’unga might not have hindered the Crusaders too significantly with a favourable draw. With the derby matches all being played over the first nine weeks of the competition, however, the prospects of playing without Mo’unga suddenly look increasingly daunting for the Crusaders.

Given there’s an eight-team finals series, there’s almost zero chance of the Crusaders missing out on the play-offs even if they did drop their opening matches, but Robertson will want his charges to start the season on a high and that might be difficult without Mo’unga on board.

Although the Crusaders have been grooming back-ups for Mo’unga for the better part of his career, the other flyhalves in the squad aren’t exactly dripping with Super Rugby experience regardless.

Brett Cameron, who earned a solitary cap for the All Blacks in 2018, loomed as the heir-apparent for a number of years but never really earned the confidence of Robertson and his assistants. After learning he was surplus to demands for 2022, Cameron made the shift to Japan where he’s now representing Kamaishi Seawaves in the second division of the League One competition.

Is Robertson going to be comfortable handing the keys to the Ferrari to either of the current options, given their lack of game time, especially when the Crusaders’ first six matches include the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Blues and Chiefs (twice)?

In Cameron’s place, the Crusaders have recruited ‘experienced’ option Simon Hickey – presumably with an eye towards Mo’unga’s absence. While Hickey made a decent fist of things representing Bordeaux Begles and Edinburgh in Europe, he still has just two seasons and 14 caps worth of Super Rugby experience to his name. Importantly, he’s also not necessarily someone you’d expect to challenge the defences in a similar vein to Mo’unga.

Then there’s Fergus Burke, who is entering his third season of Super Rugby. Although Burke appeared to nudge ahead of Cameron in the pecking order at the Crusaders, he’s still only been entrusted to wear the No 10 jersey on just one occasion.

Is Robertson going to be comfortable handing the keys to the Ferrari to either of the current options, given their lack of game time, especially when the Crusaders’ first six matches include the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Blues and Chiefs (twice)?

The left-field option would be to again move David Havili into the driver’s seat, something which he handled reasonably well against the Chiefs in the second round of the 2020 season. That game still ended in defeat for the Crusaders, going down 25-15 in Hamilton, but Havili himself looked composed at first receiver.

Fergus Burke could slot in at No 10 in the absence of Richie Mo’unga. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Given the riches available to the Crusaders in the backline, shifting Havili wouldn’t be the worst idea. In 2021 he was tasked with playing at inside centre, despite favouring the fullback role, but with Will Jordan likely to hold onto the No 15 jersey and the likes of Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor and Leicester Fainga’anuku all excellent midfield options, perhaps putting Havili at 10 would be the best way for Robertson to utilise all his talent, before the injuries inevitably start rearing their ugly heads.

One way or another, Scott Robertson will have to find a fill-in for Mo’unga – the man who the Crusaders have built their attack around and who has become so adept at taking the game by the scruff of the neck whenever his side have needed a little bit of a boost.

That’s easier said than done, of course, but it could be the difference between the Crusaders building a comfortable lead at the head of the table early in the season or playing catch up.

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