Earlier this year, Hamish Riach, CEO of the Crusaders, explained to me how, in the light of the Crusaders’ ongoing dominance of Super Rugby and interest in Scott Robertson’s coaching methods, he had fielded an “unprecedented number of requests to examine our environment, understand how our coaches work, and find a mysterious ‘key’ to our success.”
All of those requests, including approaches from administrators and coaches around the world, and a TV proposal to produce an in-depth, behind the scenes, ‘warts and all’ account of what makes the Crusaders and Robertson tick, have been politely turned away, partly so as to prevent unnecessary distraction, and partly to protect the Crusaders’ intellectual property.
Remember when only special people had a mobile phone? Riach clearly understands that what is special is no longer special if everyone has the same thing.
So while the rest of the rugby world is kept in the dark to ponder if it is a secret blend of goat milk and Yuzu juice that drives the Crusaders’ success, there is one vital piece of information that lies in the public domain that tells us much of what we need to know.
More than any other Super Rugby franchise, the Crusaders understand the power of continuity; culturally within their organisation, and in their playing roster.
It is a virtue that has served them famously; from the foundation of the Canterbury Rugby Union in 1879 through 22 years of Super Rugby, delivering eight wins and four runners-up finishes, including in 2011 when damage to their stadium as a result of the Christchurch earthquake resulted in every single match being played away from home.
Not for the Crusaders the boom and bust, roller coaster rides that are the norm for mere mortal franchises. New players are not so much introduced but indoctrinated. Of course, they are challenged and encouraged to use their individual skills (Mitchell Hunt’s audacious dropped goal to beat the Highlanders and David Havili’s developing expression from fullback last year just two examples), but most of all, every player unfailingly serves the team.
Having anointed the Crusaders 2018 champions a few weeks back I’m not about to go back on that now. But for any die-hard Lions fan or neutral desperately searching for a chink in the Crusaders’ armour, here’s a tasty fact to consider: the side that defeated the Hurricanes 30-12 on Saturday contained 14 of the starting 15 that played last year’s’ final. Throw in six from eight off the bench for good measure, and you get the picture.
The odd man out is winger George Bridge, starting for Israel Dagg – a change that, on current form, can hardly be said to weaken the side.
It’s an astonishing tale of continuity, and the primary reason why the Crusaders will start at prohibitive odds to make it nine wins from 23 next Saturday.
The Lions, by contrast, had 11 players start their semi-final against the Waratahs that played in last year’s’ decider – not bad, but not in the same league, particularly when you add the coaching changeover from Johan Ackermann to Swys de Bruin into the mix.
Lions captain Warren Whiteley indicated after his side’s win that he had watched the Crusaders snuff out the Hurricanes earlier in the day, and pointed to how adept the Crusaders are at all facets of the game, with no apparent weaknesses.
Whiteley is a fine man who treats media and fans with respect and courtesy, and who is consistently transparent and honest in his comments. Indeed, the worst thing that can be said about him is that his leadership aura is slightly diminished each time he looks towards the sideline for guidance or instruction after his side receives a penalty.
He leads a proud and capable side, but there was no hiding the fact that – six days out from the final with 11,500 kilometres of air miles to squeeze in – Whiteley was not in possession of any hitherto unknown secret to success in Christchurch.
Certainly the Hurricanes, despite a resurgence of sorts in the final few weeks, had no answers, only a final-minute try to the competition’s leading try-scorer, Ben Lam, providing a semblance of respect on the scoreboard.
The Ngani Laumape versus Ryan Crotty contest in the midfield proved to be a fizzer, with the Hurricanes unable to find a way to bring Laumape into the game on their terms. Perhaps the Canes were avoiding telegraphing their approach, but thighs like the ones Laumape possesses aren’t made for grubber-kicking.
It was satisfying to see Julian Savea throw himself into his work with renewed verve – too late to rescue his All Black career, but a reminder of what made him the world’s most premier winger when he was at his best. Although Braydon Ennor scored the Crusaders’ final try unmarked on the right flank, Savea’s effort to prevent it being scored in the left corner moments before was first-class.
For the winners, Keiran Read is building nicely into his season – precise on the tackle and keen to carry. Havili seems to be regaining confidence and the midfield combination between Crotty and Jack Goodhue continues to evolve.
Crotty did, however, provide his customary head-knock scare – while it’s usually an honour to have a grandstand or similar named after you, the ‘Ryan Crotty HIA Center’ probably isn’t what he had in mind.
There was plenty of post-match discussion around the comparative merits of the two flyhalves, Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, and while the impressive Mo’unga undoubtedly took the honours, it might be prudent to leave further scrutiny of Barrett until after we see him on the end of a few Aaron Smith specials behind a firing All Blacks’ pack.
There was a familiar ring to the Waratahs’ brave but ultimately futile effort in Johannesburg – last year the Hurricanes scored the first three tries of their semi-final and skipped out to a 20-point lead before being overrun by the Lions 44-29.
This time the Waratahs – high on energy and intent – scored twice through Ned Hanigan and Israel Folau and led 14-0, but with the Lions having recovered the deficit to draw level at half-time, and dominating at scrum and maul, there was never any real question of an upset victory.
The chip kick on return is more often than not a low-percentage play but with the Waratahs absent a sweeper in behind the front defensive line and Aphiwe Dyantyi possessing the speed of a gazelle and the swerve of a Wasim Akram thunderbolt, it provided a thrilling try and bought the home crowd right back into the match.
Earlier, the pugnacious Kwagga Smith had found a try where there shouldn’t really have been one, before going on to repeat the dose in the second half – in between tag-teaming with Malcolm Marx to cement their reputation as the premier breakdown turnover specialists in Super Rugby.
The stream of breakdown penalties highlighted the dangers of running at the Lions; the Waratahs’ energetic approach introducing fatigue as a contributing factor for support players to fall half a step behind and miss crucial cleanouts. None of which is intended as criticism of coach Daryl Gibson’s tactics – they were never going to engineer nor win a 9-6 grind against this Lions side, at altitude, in what were perfect, afternoon conditions.
Fatigue wasn’t a factor in the sin-binning of replacement hooker Damien Fitzpatrick – he had only just come onto the field – but it was a reminder that margins at this level can be very slight, and laziness and lack of self-awareness are punished heavily. With Fitzpatrick off, the Lions mauled for Marx’s second try – the impressive Franco Mostert at the heart of it – and gained a lead they would never relinquish.
The Waratahs left nothing in Johannesburg, and can justifiably be proud of a sharply improved season. If the Sydney fans who have stayed at home this year are prepared to treat their side at face value, they deserve to be much better supported next year.
As for the Lions, they have clearly ticked up a couple of gears since the June international window. In fact, the two finalists have arrived at this year’s showpiece in pretty much the same state they were last year – the difference being that this time, the final is being held in Christchurch.
Opening odds in excess of $8 in a two-horse race seem ludicrous for a side as worthy as the Lions. On the other hand, it is hard to escape the feeling that their moment was 12 months ago, not next weekend.
For the second successive week, refereeing was a non-issue, Glenn Jackson and Jaco Peyper both having solid games. Some will extrapolate that as being due to their ‘neutrality’, while logic suggests that it was due to their competence, regardless of which country they or the competing teams originate from.
It is interesting to consider the two recent Super Rugby finals where there have been controversial refereeing decisions – Jaco Peyper sending Kwagga Smith off last year for a dangerous challenge on David Havili, and Craig Joubert penalising Richie McCaw to allow Bernard Foley to kick the winning goal for the Waratahs in 2014.
Peyper was a ‘hometown’ referee ruling against the home side, and Joubert a ‘neutral’ making a crucial decision that he reportedly later apologised to McCaw about for making incorrectly. What this shows is that referees will continue to get things right and wrong regardless of where they come from.
As for the ‘perception of neutrality’ argument, the fact that Super Rugby is a franchise/club competition, not an international competition, seems to have been lost in the debate – perhaps another example of SANZAAR’s inability to positively influence the public discourse around the competition.
Let’s remember that next week’s appointee, Angus Gardner, is only ‘neutral’ because the Lions happened to beat the Waratahs. If that result had gone the other way, be in no doubt that the Crusaders would have had no issue with Gardner getting the job.
There is one quick questionfor Gardner, however, that I’d like he and his assistants to consider before the final. Why is the touchline treated with precision and certainty in normal play, but has somehow become irrelevant and invisible when a hooker throws the ball into the lineout?