It has been widely said by many cheeky Kiwi fans that Aussie teams play second fiddle to New Zealand in Super Rugby Pacific.
While it seems to be the case at present, it omits one key fact: whether you are an Australian, New Zealand, Fijian or a Pacific side, since 2017 we have all been playing second fiddle to the Crusaders.
Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson’s tenure in Canterbury could not have been any more successful, with an astounding 83 per cent win record, five Super Rugby titles, and two Super Rugby Aotearoa titles. Good luck to his successor.
Few have managed to dominate a single competition like the Crusaders, whether you consider that dominance a positive or negative. Razor was helped by a side stacked with some of the best All Blacks, not to mention a pathway program that is the envy of any team in the world.
It wasn’t just the quality of the squad though – it is the mentality and winning culture that is built within the bones of the entire club. It’s become a cliche that you can never underestimate the Crusaders. If there is one thing they know how to do, it is find a way to win.
No more was that the case than in last year’s grand final, where they delivered sweet revenge on a Chiefs side that had beaten them twice during the regular season. A target now sits squarely on their back.
As Razor moves on to the All Blacks, the men from Christchurch find themselves set for the biggest shakeup of the club since the beginning of the Todd Blackadder era of 2009.
With a new coach, 19 players (including All Black veterans Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga and young guns like Leicester Fainga’anuku) departing the squad, the red and black wave is set to be challenged in 2024, and the question of whether Canterbury’s legendary pathway program can sustain its dominance over everyone else will be put to the ultimate test.
The new coach who finds himself taking on the herculean task of following Razor is a certain Rob Penney. Many an eyebrow was raised at his appointment, but the more you look at Penney, the more sense it makes.
Canterbury born and bred, Penney is already well familiar with the systems in place, having led the Canterbury ITM Cup side to four titles in a row between 2006-2011. After stints at Munster and the Shining Arcs (now D-Rocks) in Japan, he was controversially appointed as Waratahs head coach midway during the World Cup ahead of the 2020 season. He also was an assistant coach at Robbie Deans
In a time of COVID-enforced cutbacks and an organisation struggling to keep the lights on, Penney found himself with an inexperienced squad being routinely outplayed, in a Sydney system he struggled to grasp. A 26 per cent winning record and a disastrous 0-5 start to the 2021 Super Rugby AU season proved a step too far, and he was subsequently sacked.
In that sense, returning to Canterbury feels like the right fit for Penney at this current point in time. Unlike Sydney, Penney knows Canterbury. He knows what is expected of him.
Where better for him to go than back to the place that inspired his love of the game?
Even more so, it’s a perfect fit for the Crusaders – Penney was a mentor to Robertson, so if they wish to continue their incredible streak, he serves as the natural fit to do so. However, he faces several challenges.
Squad & New Inclusions
With the amount of rugby IP departing the franchise and with a clear target on their back coming into 2024, Penney has taken a two-pronged approach to his squad: falling back on the Canterbury system to bring in new blood, and mashing them with some of the most experienced players on the planet to set the stage for future success.
Among the veterans making the move to Christchurch are the 100-capped Owen Franks, legendary Canterbury alumni Ryan Crotty, Fijian and former Force player, Manasa Mataele, and the third-highest-scoring player in Welsh rugby history, 100-capped Leigh Halfpenny, who unfortunately got injured earlier this month in a trial.
They’ll join the likes of many of the Crusaders’ talent already on the ground, including Scott Barrett, Ethan Blackadder, Codie Taylor, David Havili, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan, among many others.
With 18 players having achieved international honours, it will prove a hub of valuable knowledge to deliver to the exciting depth coming through, including Fergus Burke and Christian Lio-Willie.
Squad: *denotes new signing
Props: George Bower, Finlay Brewis, Owen Franks*, Joe Moody, Fletcher Newell, Tamaiti Williams
Hookers: George Bell, Brodie McAlister, Ioane Moananu, Codie Taylor
Locks: Scott Barrett, Tahlor Cahill*, Zach Gallagher, Jamie Hannah, Quinten Strange
Loose Forwards: Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie, Dominic Gardiner, Cullen Grace, Corey Kellow, Christian Lio-Willie
Scrumhalves: Mitchell Drummond, Willi Heinz, Noah Hotham
Flyhalves: Fergus Burke, Taha Kemara, Rivez Reihana*
Centres: Levi Aumua*, Ryan Crotty*, David Havili, Dallas McLeod, Jone Rova*
Wingers & Fullbacks: Manasa Mataele*, Heremaia Murray*, Sevu Reece, Macca Springer, Chay Fihaki, Leigh Halfpenny*, Will Jordan
Strengths & Weaknesses
Opening up such a dynamic team setting, particularly with a lot of new blood in the backs, will present opportunities for exciting talents to come through the ranks.
Conversely, though, many teams will immediately look to target it, and should they get the upper hand while combinations are still getting set under Penney’s guidance, there is a weakness that could be exploited to derail their quest for a record eighth title.
The Crusaders still have weapons galore all over the park, and despite the new coach, are likely set to hit the ground running quickly with the talent at their disposal.
The forward pack is well set, and will likely be the key factor that wins the Crusaders many games this year, and the dangers that really stand out are Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams. Already proving themselves a perfect fit at international level, their physicality can arguably be only matched by the likes of Angus Bell or Taniela Tupou – big boys that can hit hard.
Despite being where the key weaknesses lie, if your backline still has the likes of David Havili and Will Jordan in it, you’re doing alright.
Penney will country on the leadership of Crotty and Halfpenny to lead the group, and should the rising tide lift all ships, he has the cattle to turn his backline into one of the most dangerous in the entire competition.
Mo’unga’s departure to Japan shapes as the biggest void, and it hasn’t been helped by Burke’s injury that will keep the talented 24-year-old sidelined for the opening couple of months.
Before he returns, youngsters Taha Kemara and Rivez Reihana will battle it out to wear the No.10 jersey. Havili, too, is an outside chance to jump into the role if Penney needs someone with experience to get the job done.
The Crusaders have a tough opening few rounds of the competition, playing the Chiefs in a rematch of the grand final in Waikato, drawing the Waratahs for Super Round, and then heading across to Fiji – the country they slipped up last year.
They’ll enjoy several home games before the bye, but will come up against the Hurricanes and Chiefs, before travelling north to face the Blues. After the bye, they will play four matches against Australian sides, travelling to Sydney and Perth before back-to-back weeks at home against the Reds and Rebels.
Bar a trip to Canberra to face a strong Brumbies outfit, the latter half of the season should see Canterbury come home with a wet sail, and make it into finals.
Predicted Finish: 2nd
Honestly, despite the personnel change the Crusaders still have more than enough to finish near the top of the table, and this form should continue this season.
Just how the Crusaders manage Mo’unga’s departure is the million dollar question.