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FEATURE Will the Crusaders' decline spark a slow death for New Zealand rugby?

Will the Crusaders' decline spark a slow death for New Zealand rugby?
2 months ago

They have been at the top of the tree for as long as anyone can remember. The Crusaders, hailing from Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand, have been the standard-bearers for provincial rugby; not just south of the equator, but worldwide during the All Blacks’ decade of dominance between 2008 and 2018.

A winning culture at the Crusaders provided the engine, and a trifecta of ‘three wise men’ – Sir Graham Henry, Sir Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith – kept a supple and creative hand on the tiller. It was the perfect storm for sustainable success, generations of winning habits passing through red-and-black and on to all-black jerseys.

Today, the situation is far murkier. The coach with the most wins in Crusaders history, Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson, has ascended to the top job, but in his wake there is a trail of incoherence, a mess. The Crusaders started with five losses out of five in Super Rugby Pacific and sit dead last in the table.

It is not just the superstars such as second-row Sam Whitelock and fly-half Richie Mo’unga who have moved on and left a vacuum behind them. It is a group of players sitting just below that top tier, such as Oli Jager, Mitch Dunshea, Jack Goodhue and Leicester Fainga’anuku, who are just as important – if not more – to the process of rugby renewal.

Oli Jager
Oli Jager made his Ireland debut during the Six Nations after leaving the Crusaders for Munster (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

When the ex-Pontypool and Wales captain of late 1970s and early 1980s, Terry Cobner, was asked about his toughest opponents, he would nominate unheralded flankers such as Roger Powell of Newport, or Chris Huish, who played at his own club in the East Wales valley, ‘because they kept me honest’. They were short of top-drawer quality, but they drove improvement and standards at the level just below full international. Such players are the essential sediment of the game, carrying its values forward across difficult transitions, from one era to another

When it rains, it most certainly pours, and the squalls have just kept on blowing. Only this week, ex-Canterbury and New Zealand full-back Israel Dagg bemoaned the loss of Mo’unga’s natural replacement, Fergus Burke, to Saracens in England. Saracens do not do short-termism, and if Burke is going, he will be viewed as the heir apparent to Owen Farrell’s coveted number 10 shirt for as far into the future as the eye can see. Not just for Saracens and the English Premiership, but potentially for Scotland as well thanks to Burke’s ancestral links north of Hadrian’s Wall.

As Dagg told SENZ Breakfast: “If you think of what’s next for Fergus in New Zealand, is he going to have an opportunity to play for the All Blacks? Probably not – no disrespect. So, the opportunity lies in the north, to go build a future and potentially play international rugby.”

On this occasion, the break in continuity seems to have reached a tipping point. The 2024 iteration of the Crusaders rank bottom of the entire competition in so many key categories: 12th for own-ball lineout won [a lowly 72%], 12th for average points and tries scored, at 16 points and two tries per game; one of only two sides with fewer than 100 carries per game [96]. There are just too many unwanted records being set for comfort.

If defence has been relatively excellent, allowing only 13 tries in five rounds of play, attacking cohesion has disappeared down a very large black hole, with only one score of more than four phases converted. The Crusaders played with only a 40% share of ball against the Blues in round five, and it looked like the Auckland-based outfit played the entirety of the second period in Crusaders territory.

The Crusaders used to be known for their innovation, for “doubling down on the strengths of your game, but also innovating and coming up with new ways – because you can’t stay still.” [Scott Barrett]. That 85-90% Henry/Hansen win rate, those two back-to-back World Cups and that decade of extraordinary New Zealand domination was based squarely on the 2-4-2 attack which originated in Canterbury.

Those numbers described the distribution of the superior ball-handling forwards available to New Zealand at the time: three in the middle of the field, who might be joined by a fourth as and when necessary, a pair on the left [hooker and blind-side flanker] with number eight Kieran Read and Richie McCaw out on the right – all linked on the second pass by gifted distributors such as Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Ma’a Nonu. No other nation in the world could meld their offensive powers in the same way as New Zealand.

The start of the Rugby Championship game between the All Blacks and Springboks at Ellis Park in 2013 was a perfect illustration. Right from the opening whistle, New Zealand won back their own kick and spread the ball to both edges on attack with supreme confidence.

 

Only three phases after the initial reclaim, the men in black are already in their preferred shape and stretching the Springbok defence to the limit: Read and McCaw wide right, a brilliant diamond of tight forwards led by Brodie Retallick in the middle, and Andrew Hore and Liam Messam manning the left edge with Julian Savea.

Within seven phases of play, the ball had rattled into the two 15-5m corridors on four separate occasions, Retallick had handled the ball three times and the home defence was scrambling desperately for its life on the goal-line.

 

 

For the better part of a decade, the 2-4-2 was virtually unstoppable in the hands of teams from New Zealand at both national and provincial level, and it was in a state of constant refinement in the Canterbury laboratory. If the Crusaders stayed ahead of the game, so would the All Blacks. There was perfect alignment between the two kingdoms in the knowledge ‘you cannot stay still’.

Roll the clock forward to the game between the Crusaders and Hurricanes in round four of SRP 2024, and the Crusaders’ attacking shape over multiple phases was not only toothless, it was all but unrecognisable. The following nine-phase sequence began from a kick return. After the three phases – the All Blacks’ gold standard for returning to shape – the Crusaders attack looked like this:

 

The Crusaders are in a 1-3-3-1 formation, with the two widest forwards standing quite narrow. They have visited the left 15-5m corridor on the end of three consecutive one-pass plays but they have not played the ball beyond midfield to the other side. Only number 14 Sevu Reece [out of shot] is providing width to the right and he has already been overlapped by the Canes’ last defender on that side. A rosy picture it is not, but rather insipid, and lacking both innovation and ambition.

Now let’s shift the picture forward a few frames.

 

By fifth phase, the ball has still not been played out into the right half of midfield and all discernible attacking shape has been lost in the middle. The hopeful floated pass out to the left by David Havili to Cullen Grace is easily covered. The snapshot represents a clear win for the Hurricanes defence, they are just waiting for the moment to land a knockout blow. It duly arrived a couple of phases later.

 

When the Crusaders finally attempt to move the ball towards Reece he is already marked, and the passing between forwards and backs is so laboured and telltale it ensures disaster will occur. The Crusaders finished 15m shy of their attacking start point and were forced to give up possession soon afterwards.

The problem for the Crusaders is the binding cohort in the middle of their squad has disappeared, from the level just below the constellation of stars. The problem for the All Blacks is their foundation is that little bit less certain without its red-and-black rock. The Chiefs and the Hurricanes, or even the Blues, may yet take on the Christchurch mantle, but nobody can really be sure. Not only have established strengths such as lineout been blunted, the glint of an innovative edge is absent. What will ‘Razor’ do? Will he give the Crusaders influence a light trim, or opt for a drastic, ‘Sweeney Todd’-style solution? The upshot will be fascinating.

Comments

171 Comments
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carlos 83 days ago

Nick,

I must admit that I struggled with your parallel from the Crusaders and the ABs. If anything, the Crusaders had a higher winning percentage in THEIR league compared to the ABs “league”, but that doesn’t mean much. I don’t know how you got from one to the other. If anything, it is always the case that teams eventually become weaker. The ABs have done so since 2015, in relative terms, well before the Crusaders decline, which is happening this year.

I watched them the other day against the Chefs (purposely spelled this way) and I saw a lot of baby faces and too many missing first line players. They still won and played with heart.

I have no idea how Razor will make the ABs play from now on. Most likely different to Foster. But, regardless, I don’t see this parallel of yours.

Sorry, but this time, I am at a loss with your argument. I still enjoyed the piece, as always.

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monty 83 days ago

The rumor mill grinds on and so to will the abs finding new ways to win. Death nell what utter BS.

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edward 84 days ago

I don’t know that all of these points lead to the conclusion of the death of the All Blacks - that’s more of a hyped up headline…

I think its true that NZ skill levels (esp. in the forwards) diminished over the Foster reign but I dont think the crux of the All Blacks skill and success was based purely on the Crusaders or their tactics - the clips you show feature both Maa Nonu, Conrad Smith and Brodie Rettalick making crucial contributions (none of whom played for the Crusaders). In fact, when you think about skilled Super Rugby teams, the Blues, Chiefs and Hurricanes fit that mold better. The Crusaders were all about executing basic skills well.
Lets also not forget that the Crusaders are missing up to 6-7 starters in crucial positions so its difficult to criticize them as a spent force.

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Red and White Dynamight 85 days ago

what a knob.

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HOFer 86 days ago

Interesting thoughts. The ABs of 2013 found success with attacking shape against lesser defences than we see today. Crusaders do look awful but the ABs don’t necessarily need them. There were only four Crusaders in the RWC final starting side: Will Jordan, Mo’unga, Scott Barrett, Codie Taylor. Three of them are absent from this Crusaders side. 2011-2015 during the ABs most successful era the Crusaders won zero titles, (despite having a much better side than this one). Hard to see any of this Crusader outfit outside of Barrett and Reece in the ABs starting XV

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Forward pass 87 days ago

Wrong again Nick! Shoch horror….. This article aged very quickly didnt it.

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Reuben 87 days ago

Funny how between 2008-2018 the crusaders did not win the majority of titles… it was spread evenly amongst NZ.

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Scott 87 days ago

The Crusaders terminally ill team missing 8-9 projected starters at the beginning of the season manhandle a Chiefs team missing just DMac.

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David 87 days ago

Hold the phone, decline over-rated. Is it a one game, dead cat bounce or the real thing? Has the Penney dropped? Stay tuned.

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Ed the Duck 87 days ago

The problem for NZ, and Aus, is they ripped up the SR model and lost a massive chunk of revenue that hasn’t been replaced. Don’t forget SA clubs went North because they were left with no choice, Argy unceremoniously binned and Japan cast adrift. Now SR wasn’t perfect, far from it, but they’ve jumped into something without an effective plan, so far, to replace what they’ve lost. The biggest revenue potential now lies in Japan but it won’t be easy or quick to unlock, they are incredibly insular in culture as a nation.

In the meantime, there is a serious time bomb sitting under SH rugby and if it happens then the current financial challenges will look like a picnic. IF the Boks follow their provincial teams and head north then it’s revenue meltdown. Not guaranteed to happen but the status quo is a very odd hybrid, with the Boks pointing one way and the clubs pointing the other way. And for as long as that remains then the threat is real.

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