Early-season surprise: Out-of-sorts Crusaders a talking point in Super Rugby

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — One question more than any other hovers over Super Rugby Pacific after its third round this past weekend. What’s wrong with the Crusaders?

The Christchurch-based Crusaders have lost their first three matches in a season for the time since Super Rugby’s inaugural season in 1996. It’s a baffling run of results for a team that has won the last seven Super Rugby titles in succession and 11 in its history.

The form slump is not explicable solely in terms of departures from the team between seasons. Head coach Scott Robertson, who led the Crusaders to seven consecutive championships, is now head coach of the All Blacks while All Blacks flyhalf Richie Mo’unga and lock Sam Whitelock are in Japan.

A team as accustomed to success as the Crusaders is unlikely to accept a continuation of its current form without a close exploration of the cause and recourse to a remedy. That would bring new head coach Rob Penney into the spotlight.

Penney wasn’t a surprise choice when he was appointed to succeed Robertson. In many he was anointed by Robertson as his successor.

The Crusaders always have tended to look close to home for its coaches and Penney has a long history in Christchurch rugby. He played more than 100 matches for Canterbury province and coached the Canterbury provincial from 2006 to 2011. Before that appointment he spent a year as an assistant at the Crusaders.

His record outside of Christchurch is diverse but not startling.

He coached the New Zealand under-20 team to the final of the 2012 World Cup and immediately afterwards was appointed head coach of Irish province Munster. His tenure there was moderately successful and when he left in 2014 he turned down a contract extension.

Penney coached in Japan from 2014 to 2019, then became head coach of the New South Wales Waratahs in Super Rugby. His tenure was affected by the pandemic and injuries to key players and Penney left in 2021 when the Waratahs had a 0-5 start to the season.

Penney’s reputation is of a coach in the old style, fond of hard work and meticulous preparation. He differs slightly from Robertson, who delegated more to team leaders and gave his players scope for improvisation.

But the Crusaders look to be a team this season more changed than a change of coach would explain. Their character has changed. There seems to be less of the collective thinking of past Crusaders teams in which everyone was on the same page and players seemed to act in anticipation of each others’ actions.

There’s less of the swagger of championship-winning Crusaders teams, an attitude which reflected an entitlement of success, an earned sense of superiority. And there isn’t the mood of collective purpose which in the past would grip the Crusaders when they were behind with time running out.

This season, the Crusaders have not able to close out matches when leading as they have done with such efficiency the past. There’s an immaturity about the team and that’s not entirely unexpected with new players thrust into play-making roles. But there seems less leadership and direction in clutch moments.

There wasn’t great surprise when the Crusaders lost their first match of the season to the Hamilton-based Chiefs in a reversal of last year’s final. Their loss to the Waratahs in the second round caused real concerns among their fans.

Penney addressed those concerns before the Crusaders headed to Lautoka where they were beaten by the Fijian Drua on Saturday for the second year in a row.

“It’s never easy when you have an organization that’s prided itself on being able to get across the line when challenging times occur and we haven’t been able to for a couple of weeks,” Penney said. His words applied to Saturday’s match in which the Drua came back late to win 29-20.

“I am not concerned or questioning the boys’ resolve or dedication or commitment. That’s been awesome,” Penney said. “The coaching staff and the whole management group have been awesome because we realize it’s been a long time since the Crusaders have been in this place.”

The Crusaders' resolve will fully tested over the next three weeks as they face derbies against the Wellington-based Hurricanes, Auckland-based Blues and the Chiefs again. The outcome of those matches will decide the fate of the Crusaders' latest title bid.


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