Super Rugby 2017 preview: Crusaders

Luck, legacy and the development of Super Rugby

When Robbie Deans crossed the Tasman at the end of the 2008 Super Rugby season, he left his successor a legacy which was impossible to supersede: five competition titles, two second-place finishes and the creation of one of rugby’s great dynasties. After eight seasons attempting to emulate his former coach, Todd Blackadder has now left his own mark on the franchise he first represented as a player in 1996 – but his trophyless tenure has been judged in a markedly different fashion.

Blackadder is a great example of the fine margins which disproportionately affect the reputations of head coaches: in the four seasons between 2011 and 2014, his Crusaders teams lost two semi-finals and two grand finals by an average of 2.5 points. (For comparison, across twenty-one seasons of Super Rugby, the grand final has been decided by an average of 12.3 points per game.) In order to fill out a profile which tallies with the assumption that something inherent to Blackadder underlies these outcomes, ambiguous qualities such as a lack of ‘tactical nous‘ are retroactively attributed – in much the same way that Arsène Wenger’s time at Arsenal cannot outrun the fallacy of the manager with the longest unbeaten streak in English football history lacking a winning mindset and ‘hard edge’, when tactical analysts have been pointing out on-field evidence for his team’s relative struggles for a number of seasons. This is not to exonerate Blackadder completely for these defeats, but simply to point out that perspective is necessary, chance is unavoidable and that criticism of a coach needs to be evidence-based and specific for it to be robust. The Crusaders in this period have been consistently among the strongest teams in Super Rugby, and fortune is intertwined with the nature of a hybrid league-playoff competition.

Blackadder’s tenure also tells us something about how Super Rugby has developed as a competition as the professional game has developed. In the eleven seasons between 1996 and 2006, the tournament saw twelve different franchises reach the semi-final stages but only three (Blues, Crusaders and Brumbies) win the title; in the ten seasons since 2007, by contrast, seven different winners have emerged from an equal-sized field of twelve semi-finalists. This evidence suggests that, in the early life of a competition, organisations that are able to implement strong performance cultures are able to gain a huge relative advantage over other their competitors who lag behind. However, as time passes more and more teams are able to replicate these successful habits, and in Super Rugby the relative advantage for a franchise like the Crusaders over its opponents diminished as rugby moved into its second decade of professionalism – even as their own methods of maximising performance were likely improving. This is similar to the manner in which the distance between the All Blacks and their international competitors has been growing less significant over time – not due to any lowering of their standards, but because the development of professionalism has pushed more and more teams into the successful development of high performance environments – and is more important context to bear in mind when we judge the legacies of coaches like Blackadder.

2016 season

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The chart above tracks the team’s cumulative points difference per 80 mins over the course of the 2016 season

Canterbury and the Crusaders have long been renowned for their 2-4-2 alignment in attack, and the attacking skills of the Crusaders’ forwards are among the best in the world. Alongside All Black regulars like Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read, the running lines and handling of Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua and Codie Taylor provide multiple options on almost every phase within their system. Taylor in particular is a phenomenal passer, comfortable both with quickly-transferred tip-on passes in the 15m channels and with spreading the ball to width:

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The ball-playing ability of these forwards is complemented by excellent work in tight, aided by the grunt of Joe Moody and Owen Franks in the front row. From an efficient attacking lineout, the driving maul served as a potent weapon in 2016: Blackadder’s side scored tries from it in R1, R7, R9, R11 and R16. In phase play, however, width is the focus, and they were consistently able to stretch opponents’ defences with their alignment and break through space with fluent interplay between the back row, and with Israel Dagg and Nemani Nadolo running off Richie Mo’unga and Ryan Crotty in the midfield channels and beyond:

Mo’unga’s range of passing underpinned the width which the Crusaders were able to achieve, and the addition of Bryn Hall at 9 – a very strong passer from both breakdown and set piece – will only help his half-back partner in this regard. A strategy employed both by Blackadder in his time with the Crusaders and new head coach Scott Robertson with Canterbury and New Zealand U20 is the use of the blindside wing at first receiver on set piece ball, allowing both Mo’unga and his inside centre to remain in the game and maximise the width available on second phase. One of Robertson’s priorities for 2017 will be finding a way to replace the impact provided by Nadolo in these situations, as the Crusaders were at their most effective with the ball during Blackadder’s time when they had a power carrier – the Fijian winger in recent seasons, or Sonny Bill Williams in 2011 – to break the advantage line and force the defence to commit numbers to the tackle and breakdown on early phases. Manasa Mataele is a young player in a similar mould to Nadolo, but it appears as if Robertson will begin the season by using new signing Seta Tamanivalu in this role.

What held the Crusaders back in the latter stages of the 2016 competition was their defence, and a key contrast with the Deans-era Crusaders teams is epitomised by the change in their 7-10 axis: Todd and Mo’unga are excellent attacking players, but do not provide close to the same defensive strength as McCaw and Carter in their pomp. Todd has a tendency to go high in the tackle around the fringes and can be exposed by more powerful carriers (e.g. Willis Halaholo in R17), while their midfield defence was at fault off set piece in R12, R14 and the quarter final vs. the Lions. Blackadder experimented with Mo’unga defending in the 13 channel on occasion, but a centre combination of Crotty and Jack Goodhue – both strong trackers and tacklers – would reduce the need for this set-up. Robertson’s time as head coach of both Canterbury and NZ U20 should mean that he is familiar with a lot of the young talent at his disposal and vice versa, and early indications are that he will back players like Goodhue who he has developed trust in. This familiarity should minimise the disruption that comes with any coaching change, and put the Crusaders in a good position to manage this transition moving into 2017.

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Depth chart

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Irish-born prop Oli Jager earned a Super Rugby contract off the back of his debut season with Scott Robertson’s Canterbury, while George Bridge and Jack Goodhue are two outside backs who have excelled for the new head coach at both NPC and age-grade level. Scrum-half Ere Enari – who became Robertson’s first choice in the Mitre 10 Cup after Mitchell Drummond’s injury – has also had game-time in preseason.

Top prospects

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Braydon Ennor missed out on NZSS selection in 2015 due to a cruciate ligament injury sustained in the Auckland 1A final, but a strong club season saw him involved with Canterbury’s Mitre 10 Cup preparations in August. The former St Kent’s midfield back then excelled for Canterbury U19 in the Jock Hobbs Memorial tournament to move into contention for a New Zealand U20 spot in 2017. His defensive movement at centre is excellent, and in attack combines good handling skills with balance on the ball and top-end speed:

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