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The Crusaders dynasty looks dead - so how will it impact the All Blacks?

4th March, 2024
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4th March, 2024
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So, well done to the Waratahs. I didn’t tip them to beat the Crusaders and, in fact, I didn’t even think the game would be close.

I underestimated them and I was proved wrong. Which is great. If I have an issue with Super Rugby Pacific it’s the general lack of competitiveness. Too many games in which the outcome appears certain.

For the competition to gain a following commensurate with its fabled past, we have to be unsure of who’s going to win every week.

But that’s one game in isolation and, while important for the Waratahs, the more significant issue is the Crusaders and, by association, All Blacks.

Scott Barrett of the Crusaders (centre) and Crusaders players react after defeat at the final whistle during the round two Super Rugby Pacific match between Crusaders and NSW Waratahs at AAMI Park, on March 02, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

I’m not sure Rob Penney is the right man to be Crusaders coach, now more than ever. His time was during Todd Blackadder’s tenure. Penney was winning titles with Canterbury, grooming players for Super Rugby and well supported by assistants Tabai Matson and Scott Robertson.

I ghosted a weekly newspaper column for Penney in those days. He was an invaluable resource to me in many ways and someone I had great respect for.

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But, even in that era, he was of an age when the game and its players were moving on.

Penney worked hard, was hugely motivated to win and fierce in his regard for red-and-black rugby and all that it stood for.

But there were times when it felt as if the brains of the coaching operation resided with Matson and Robertson.

Penney’s got a big job on his hands now and it’ll be assistant coach Matt Todd and veteran midfield back Ryan Crotty – both boys brought into the Canterbury system by Penney – who loom as bridges between the head coach and the team.

Robertson’s skill, after succeeding Blackadder, was to sell the Crusaders’ All Blacks on caring about Super Rugby.

In that regard, he was helped hugely by serial winners Sam Whitelock and Richie Mo’unga. Without them, the Crusaders appear a shell of their former selves.

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Whitelock standards, hunger and work ethic were unrivalled and there were times when he seemed to will the team to success.

Behind him, Mo’unga pulled the strings from first five-eighth, safe in the knowledge that he enjoyed Robertson’s absolute confidence.

I’m not sure Mo’unga’s much of a loss to the All Blacks, because he never appeared to have the same feeling of belonging within that team.

There’s no doubt Mo’unga ran the Crusaders. You can argue the All Blacks consistently deferred to Beauden Barrett instead. But I don’t feel that, as the Crusaders go, so do the All Blacks.

Richie Mo'unga of the Crusaders runs through to score a try

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

I don’t believe the Crusaders will continue to be the all-conquering side they were under Robertson, partly because of the absence of Mo’unga and Whitelock. I find that a shame, due to the regard I have for winners.

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It’s hard to be good every year and you have to admire the teams who are able to do it consistently.

If we talk about inheriting jobs, the one Robertson’s got is easier than Penney’s.

The bar for All Blacks success is lower than it ever has been. In many ways, we’ve become content to simply see that team competing, let alone winning.

Robertson’s a proven salesman, where his players are concerned, and is also more likely to take All Blacks fans on the journey in a way Ian Foster was never able to. He’ll need that skill as he turns the squad over during the next two to three years.

I’m not sure Penney has the same luxury.

Rob Penney. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Excellence is still the expectation at the Crusaders and I doubt they’ll reach that this season.

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Whitelock and Mo’unga are irreplaceable, but a succession of Crusaders coaches have also had a propping rotation that was the envy of teams around the world. I’m not sure that’s the case now.

I covered a number of promising Hurricanes campaigns, for example, that fell in a screaming heap in Christchurch because they couldn’t scrummage or win their own lineout ball.

Competing in the set pieces against the Crusaders has arguably never been easier than it is now.

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

As a quick aside, Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd made an astute observation at the end of his tenure, about the Super Rugby finals he led the team to in 2015 and 2016.

I’m paraphrasing here, but Boyd basically said the Hurricanes made those finals because – by their own high standards – the Crusaders were off the pace in those two seasons.

I don’t hold great fears for the All Blacks in 2024, mostly because New Zealand still boasts capable players and Robertson has won at every level he’s coached at.

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Many fans don’t quite know what to make of the man, but they take comfort from his record.

Penney’s body of work isn’t littered with the same success and nor does he have the level of talent synonymous with so many Crusaders sides.

But, hey, I’ve been proved wrong before.

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