Dying dynasty? Ailing Crusaders look to stop the rot

March 12, 2024 4:22 pm

[Source: Reuters]

The Canterbury Crusaders, the behemoth of southern hemisphere provincial rugby, hit a 28-year low with their loss to Fijian Drua last weekend and they risk sinking into an unprecedented trough if they cannot turn their season around this week.

The Christchurch-based outfit have built a decent case for being considered the world’s most successful professional rugby team over the last three decades and have won the last seven straight iterations of Super Rugby in its various forms.

Last weekend’s 20-10 loss to Drua on a steamy afternoon in Lautoka, however, followed defeats in the first two rounds to the Waikato Chiefs and New South Wales Waratahs.

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Not since the first season of Super Rugby in 1996 had the Crusaders lost three straight matches at the start of the season and they have never lost four in a row at any stage of any campaign.

Avoiding that fate at home on Friday night means beating the Wellington Hurricanes, who in 2016 were the last team apart from the Crusaders to win an international edition of Super Rugby and are the only unbeaten side in this year’s competition.

The loss of coach Scott Robertson to the All Blacks job and stalwarts like Richie Mo’unga and Sam Whitelock to Japan and France at the end of last season would have hurt any team.

New coach Rob Penney is also having to do without world class outside back Will Jordan, who will miss the entire campaign after having shoulder surgery.

The Crusaders have lost world class players before, of course, but they were always able to rely on their enviable production line of new talent to fill the gaps.

The three matches this season, though, have seen substandard performances in historically rock solid elements of their game such as lineout and breakdown work, while unforced errors have beset the new look backline.

“If you look through the group there’s a cohesion element that’s missing,” Penney, whose last head coaching job ended when he was sacked halfway through the Waratahs’ only winless season in 2021, admitted after the Drua loss.

“We’ve been clunky in the first two games and we were a bit clunky again today. That’s something that’s not been unrecognized by the staff and we’re working hard to fix it.”

Friday’s match against the Hurricanes will be the first of the season at their Christchurch Stadium home, however, and Penney still has plenty of quality in his squad.

Skipper Scott Barrett is a world class lock and leader, winger Sevu Reece has been outstanding even in a losing cause, and new recruit Levi Aumua was the most dangerous centre in the competition last year for Moana Pasifika.

Moreover, writing off the Crusaders has always been a brave call, whether it be during a dip in form or when they trail with only minutes left in a match.