With the end of 2019 came a changing of the guard in Christchurch. The departures of Kieran Read and Tim Bateman – whose time at the franchise was broken up by stints at the Hurricanes and in Japan – saw the final threads between the current Crusaders’ playing squad and the Robbie Deans era broken, both players having started the 2008 final victory over the Waratahs.
A number of other household names also moved on: between them, Owen Franks, Matt Todd, Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg contributed a substantial proportion of the 380 All Blacks caps and 1,009 Crusaders appearances which left Rugby Park at the conclusion of last season.
But perhaps the most remarkable feature of Robertson’s tenure at the helm of the franchise is the consistency of their on-field performance, and this has been largely maintained in 2020 – even in the wake of such upheaval. In each season since 2017 – this year included – the Crusaders have averaged between 31.5 and 34.2 points (4.3 and 4.7 tries) scored and between 16.7 and 18.5 points (2.1 and 2.5 tries) conceded.
While their average per-game points margin (+14.0) and try margin (+1.8) for the opening 6 games of 2020 dipped slightly to their lowest level of Robertson’s 4 years to date, the head coach deserves credit for the long-term planning that left the franchise in a position to continue to thrive even shorn of so many significant pieces from their recent treble of competition titles.
For despite this significant squad turnover – 12 players in total leaving the club, with an average age of 30.4, to be replaced by newcomers with an average age of 23.2 – the Crusaders were able to hit the ground running because of the composition of the rest of their squad. Even with the presence of those veterans, their 2019 squad was notably younger than those of the other Kiwi franchises: their average age was 26.3, compared to 27.7 across the other 4 teams.
The team was also able to retain a strong spine around which it could regenerate. Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Scott Barrett in the front five have all been regulars since 2017, while in the backline Bryn Hall, Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue, George Bridge and David Havili similarly established themselves in Robertson’s first season in charge; all 8 players remain, and have started 36 games between them in 2020.
Some of the departing veterans had already begun to be phased out in recent years – because of injury, Owen Franks and Kieran Read respectively started only 52.7% and 41.8% of the team’s games between 2017 and 2019 – but two in particular were integral to Robertson’s 3 title-winning seasons.
Both Todd (at openside flanker) and Crotty (in the midfield) started over 80% of games during Robertson’s first 3 years, but in both positions there appear to have been clear succession plans. Former New Zealand U20 captain Tom Christie has been given ample opportunity to adjust to Super Rugby in his debut season, starting at 7 in all 6 games to date; meanwhile, Braydon Ennor’s ascent at 13 has forced Goodhue to move in a spot to 12, and the Crusaders have gone with this centre combination – which had 2 outings in 2019, including in the competition final – in 4 of those games.
Ennor recently attested to the fact that Robertson’s plan for the pair to form a midfield partnership dates back as far as 2015, when he was the head coach of Canterbury’s Mitre 10 Cup side, and thinking and planning this far ahead is something he seems to implement consistently. He revealed as much in an interview which featured a discussion of the interview process for the All Blacks head coach role he went through late last year: in order to address one of the issues which dented the prospects of the national side at the 2019 World Cup, Robertson was clear about how he would consistently measure and build “team cohesion to perform under pressure” using Gain Line Analytics’ Team Work Index metric.
While the organisation’s commitment to good process has kept the Crusaders’ results on track in 2020, such player turnover has had a discernible impact on the style of rugby which the team has played. Swapping out older, more technically polished squad members for younger, more athletic ones has led to a slightly looser approach with ball in hand and an improvement in some markers of their attacking effectiveness.
This transition has not always been pretty – there have been times when the resulting drop in cohesion has told, with missed timing between forwards and trail runners on screen passes leading to dropped balls – but on the whole they are making more breaks and beating more defenders, while playing with more width:
Accompanying this ball-in-hand improvement, however, has been a slip in some of their fundamentals: their discipline has become more of an issue, with the team conceding almost 20% more penalties per game (11.2) than last year (9.4), and their attacking maul has significantly decreased in effectiveness.
While Sam Whitelock’s return from Japan will help them in this regard – in his early 30s, his technical ability is how he adds the majority of his value – their phase attack is the platform on which they have been heavily reliant so far in 2020. They have scored 3.8 tries per game within one phase of a ruck, accounting for 88.5% of their total; both of these figures – absolute and relative – are the highest among all New Zealand franchises by a comfortable margin.
Two related features of their phase play have stood out this season: their aggressiveness with their short kicking game, even from inside their own territory, and the range of uses to which they put the diverse qualities which their wingers possess in order to maximise each player’s effectiveness.
In George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Manasa Mataele, the Crusaders have a wealth of talent with which they can fill the 11 and 14 jerseys. Bridge has been brought inside off the left to fill more of a playmaking role at blindside first receiver – as for Tom Christie’s try against the Highlanders – while Reece and Jordan have often popped up off their wing as arcing trail runners behind midfield forward pods, in order to get them to the outside shoulders of mismatched defenders:
In contrast, Leicester Fainga’anuku has been used more often closer in to the ruck; 12.1% of his carries per FOX Sports have been ‘Pick & Drives’, comfortably the highest rate among the Crusaders’ outside backs. These narrower carries allow him to make use of his ability to bump off defenders in tight spaces:
Reckon Crusaders left wing Leicester Faingaanuku might fancy a crack at the Waratahs in Nelson tomorrow morning: pic.twitter.com/3gka8WxTlh— The Chase Rugby (@thechaserugby) January 31, 2020
These same wingers have also played an important part in the team’s short kicking game, which has provided the primary or secondary assist on 0.5 tries per game so far this year – again, this is the highest number among Kiwi teams. The regularity of their use of chips and grubbers is supported by the fact that their average kicking distance so far this year – 24.3m, per FOX Sports – is comfortably the lowest of any New Zealand franchise.
On kicks behind the midfield – which they’ve also used off set-piece platforms – they have cleverly used out-to-in support running angles to circumvent tightly clustered defenders (as the Chiefs have done in the past). On crossfield aerial kicks, their focus on attacking the catch with momentum in order to win the space is evident:
Constantly challenging the team environment with outside influences is another focus of Robertson’s and, after losing Ronan O’Gara as an assistant, in 2020 he had an opportunity to do so by bringing in Welshman Mark Jones. Will Jordan has spoken specifically about how the former international winger has helped him with his “work under the high ball“, and this try against the Waratahs – where Fainga’anuku explodes upwards to beat his opposite to the ball – may be an example of this work bearing fruit. (The transition to a more ball-focused defence which began under O’Gara has also continued this year: at lineouts, they often move their blind winger to defend in the front line with Mo’unga starting behind the set piece on the weak side, and Fainga’anuku’s acceleration and hitting power makes him a great asset in this role.)
With such an array of diverse talent, selection in the outside backs will be particularly challenging for the coaching team. All Blacks Bridge, Reece and Havili will likely be the first-choice trio, but Havili’s bowel infection and subsequent surgery may keep him out of the running for a number of rounds and give Jordan an opportunity in his favoured 15 shirt:
As noted above, Robertson has long had Goodhue and Ennor pencilled in as his long-term midfield partnership; inside them in the halves, the continuation of the Bryn Hall-Mitchell Drummond platoon alongside Richie Mo’unga retains some much-needed cohesion given the level of turnover elsewhere.
Up front, Moody and Taylor are nailed on in the front row at loosehead and hooker respectively, with Michael Ala’alatoa – who started 11 games last season – the likely first choice at tighthead. With the return of Whitelock from Japan and Quinten Strange from injury, the team now has a wealth of options in the second row to accompany Barrett and the rangy Mitchell Dunshea, who has been ever-present in the starting lineup so far in 2020.
The loss of Matt Todd did leave a significant gap at openside, but Christie seems to have been identified as the one to fill it. He has already finished off a couple of tries by cycling into the 15m channels in phase attack to hold width, but crucially he excels in the fundamentals: his basic strength is his ability to work accurately and powerfully in contact – both at the ruck and in the tackle – with a low body position. Per FOX Sports, among the top 15 back-rowers in the country by minutes played so far this year, he trails only the prolific Lachlan Boshier (2.7) and Du’Plessis Kirifi (1.0) in combined pilfers and breakdown penalties forced per 80 minutes (0.9) – and has been penalised much less frequently than Kirifi (1.1 conceded per 80 mins, compared to the Hurricane’s 1.8).
Accompanying Todd to Japan at the end of last year was Read, but his loose forward position was already in a state of transition due to his recent struggles with injuries; Whetukamokamo Douglas made 6 starts in the 8 shirt in 2019, and has formed an effective rotation so far this season with Tom Sanders.
At 6, Cullen Grace – like Christie – has been entrusted with a starting spot in the team’s back row at a young age, and has excelled: he combines great hitting power in defence with mobility and ball skills. He is also able to use that level at the lineout, having played second row for the New Zealand U20 side last year; Scott Robertson talked about his ‘Kieran Read spring” and “special…timing” earlier this year.
That jumping ability was certainly evident in this steal from preseason, and he has continued to be used very frequently at this set piece: among those same 15 Kiwi back-row forwards, no one comes close to his number of attacking lineouts taken per 80 mins (5.0, almost double Marino Mikaele-Tu’u’s second-ranked mark of 2.8) and he is at the top of the list for defensive steals with 0.8.
After a bye in Round 1, the Crusaders begin their Super Rugby campaign away to the Hurricanes on Sunday 21st June (kick-off: 4:35am UK time).