Campbell Burnes analyses how the Crusaders racked up a fifth consecutive Super Rugby title.
The Crusaders march on.
That makes three straight Super Rugby crowns plus the two Super Rugby Aotearoa competitions for Scott Robertson’s charges.
They started in imperious fashion before relying on the brilliant Richie Mo’unga to help see off the Blues at Eden Park.
Then followed a lull of three matches which had some pundits prematurely writing that they had hit the skids. But they won their last two matches, doing enough in a tight final which never really hit the heights. Still, they maintain their extraordinary record of never having lost a home playoffs match. That streak is now at 24 and stretches back to 1998. They have, in fact, dropped just three home games, including the 2017 British and Irish Lions, since Robertson took over.
The aberration was the 33-12 home defeat to the Highlanders on April 2. It was six years since the Crusaders had played that poorly, though the visitors were inspired in their execution.
The Chiefs, thanks to ‘Clutch’ McKenzie, took them down in Hamilton, so they dropped one more game than they did in the 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.
But, given the adversity they faced via long-term injuries to Joe Moody and Jack Goodhue, it was a fair effort. They won the big moments and soaked up pressure in most outings. That is seemingly bound into their rugby DNA.
They again had the wood on the Blues, who were meant to be their main challengers. The only discordant note was that they did not always make best use of the captain’s referral.
Robertson hinted at how the Crusaders are perceived nationwide. Few people love them outside their region, but there is widespread respect. If you are seeking to enhance the tribal aspect of rugby, that is as good as it will get amongst fans of the other four teams.
Will Jordan, thriving at fullback, and a resurgent Sevu Reece, were both amongst the tries (five apiece), though they could not trump hooker Codie Taylor (seven), who played with deadly accuracy and dynamism, determined to win back his All Blacks No 2 jersey.
Leicester Faingaanuku was hard to halt, and looked more than useful at centre in place of Goodhue.
David Havili played so well at second five that he is now a genuine All Blacks prospect in that position. He broke open the final with a judicious grubber for Jordan to score, and came up with some vital defensive reads.
We go into more detail on Mo’unga’s influence below, while Mitch Drummond seemed to have the edge on Bryn Hall for the halfback start, though the pair again worked well as a one-two punch.
The loosies were good value, with Cullen Grace solid at No 8 and Sione Havili tenacious at openside. Ethan Blackadder bounced back from long-term injury to mark up on the blindside. He had a big game, highlighted by his coach, in the final, and not just for his tackling qualities.
Captain Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock were unchanged as starters for the first six matches, the latter maintaining the highest standards. Mitch Dunshea had to be largely content with the No 19 jersey, while Quin Strange made just four appearances, three off the pine.
Michael Alaalatoa was solid as a rock at tighthead, while George Bower make a good fist of replacing Moody.
Taylor was unchallenged as the hooker. He was the best rake in the competition by some distance. He anchored the set-piece effort, from where they could launch some effective attacking moves, and that complemented the sharpest backline in Super Rugby once again.
It was no surprise they were lacklustre in their Trans-Tasman Super Rugby opener against the Brumbies. None of the four finalists on either side of the Ditch were on point in round one. But there is little reason to think the Crusaders will not be challenging for a second championship this month.
We will go into the Chiefs in more depth from pages 54-56, but fair play to them for making the final when they had so much going against them, notably injuries.
The Blues were the biggest letdown. Possessing a beefed-up roster, they were expected to kick on from a promising 2020 season and really challenge the red and black hegemony.
But after blitzing the Hurricanes and Highlanders in their first two matches, they went soft at the set-piece, and never exerted enough authority at 10-12, TJ Faiane’s injuries not helping. Caleb Clarke played injured, and Akira Ioane fell off the pace. They leaned heavily on Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papali’i and Tom Robinson to lead the way, but will be kicking themselves for not picking up one extra bonus point, which would have seen them into their first finals match since 2011.
The Highlanders will be bitterly disappointed with fourth position, given the manner in which they dissected the Crusaders. But they only scored two other wins. Their injury toll in the back three was biblical, and they relied too much on Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell, though the likes of Billy Harmon and Josh Dickson toiled manfully.
The Hurricanes’ predicted problems in the 9-10 axis came to pass after injury to Jackson Garden-Bachop. Jordie Barrett, Ngani Laumape and Ardie Savea were mostly good, but they recorded just two Ws. More is expected against the Aussie teams, though they don’t want to tackle like they are playing touch, as we saw against the Waratahs.
After the first three rounds, there were genuine fears this would be a two-horse race between the Crusaders and Blues.
But the Chiefs roared back to win five straight, none by more than six points. In the April 17, round eight fixture against the Crusaders in Hamilton, the lead seesawed in Drummond’s 100th match. Lachie Boshier’s re-entry to the Chiefs helped hugely at the breakdown and they barred up at set-piece too. But the hard to shake Crusaders led by two until the 78th minute when McKenzie, who had not missed all night, landed a long-range bomb to see them home 26-25 in a thriller.
Honourable mention: April 23, Chiefs 26-24 Hurricanes in Hamilton
How can you go past Richie Mo’unga… again?
Codie Taylor was certainly the best forward and scored a remarkable seven tries, but no one was more influential than Mo’unga, who was, by my count, MVP on less than five occasions out of nine outings, including the final. He was the difference against the Blues in Auckland, scoring 28 points. In general, he ran the ball with aplomb, kicked accurately and steered the ship as if to the manor born. Funnily enough, he probably had two quiet games to start the season. In all, he scored 105 points in SRA.
Honourable mentions: Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, David Havili, Sevu Reece, Luke Jacobson, Damian McKenzie, Shannon Frizell, Aaron Smith
CRUSADERS IN SRA 2021:
W 26-13 v Highlanders (a)
W 33-16 v Hurricanes (h)
W 39-17 v Chiefs (h)
W 43-27 v Blues (a)
L 12-33 v Highlanders (h)
W 30-27 v Hurricanes (a)
L 25-26 v Chiefs (a)
W 29-6 v Blues (h)
W 24-13 v Chiefs (h, final)