The Crusaders empire is ‘crumbling’ – and that could be good news for England

Waratah players tackle Crusaders player Scott Barrett (C) during the Super Rugby match between the NSW Waratahs and the Canterbury Crusaders in Melbourne on March 2, 2024
Crusaders have had a rough start to the Super Rugby season - Getty Images/William West

Given rugby union’s propensity for change, it has been reassuring in the last few years to be able to bank on a couple of certainties. Leinster will do well in the northern hemisphere, and the Crusaders will do well in the southern hemisphere.

Checking the lay of the land in the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup and it is fair to say that Leinster are holding up their end of the bargain. They sit first in the URC and went unbeaten in the Champions Cup pool stages picking up 19 out of a possible 20 points.

And the Crusaders? Well, not so much. Four games into the Super Rugby season and the Crusaders have lost them all to the Chiefs, Waratahs, Fijian Drua and Hurricanes. The most-decorated side in Super Rugby history with 12 titles, coming off a run of seven trophies in a row, have made their worst-ever start to a Super Rugby season. “Crumbling empire” was how one New Zealand publication referred to their current state.

Naturally, there are a multitude of reasons. Johnny Sexton may have retired and Stuart Lancaster left for Paris but the rest of the Leinster juggernaut remains intact. Not forgetting the addition to the coaching staff of Jacques Nienaber, who has done fairly well in recent years with the Springboks.

Meanwhile the Crusaders are covered in scaffolding, at the start of a major rebuild following an exodus of their many key pillars.

Scott Robertson, the Crusaders’ former break-dancing head coach who seemingly forgot how to not win titles, is now (at last) in charge of New Zealand. Sam Whitelock, the Crusaders’ most recent captain, is with Pau. Richie Mo’unga, the team’s fly-half, is in Japan with Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo. Remove those foundational pieces and the Crusaders losing their mojo suddenly does not seem as much of a surprise, and that’s before you consider that Oli Jager (Munster and now capped by Ireland), Jack Goodhue (Castres) and Leicester Fainga’anuku (Toulon) have also moved on.

Sam Whitlock of the Canterbury Crusaders holds the trophy as he celebrates with team mates after they defeated South Africa's Lions
Sam Whitelock is one of several stars to have left Christchurch - Reuters/Stringer

Not forgetting key injuries. Will Jordan, the top try scorer at last year’s Rugby World Cup, is ruled out for the season. Leigh Halfpenny arrived from Wales in a fascinating move, only to injure his pectoral muscle in the pre-season friendly against Munster and be ruled out for months. Codie Taylor, the All Blacks hooker and one of the Crusaders’ best players, is on a non-playing sabbatical until later in the season, while Scott Barrett, who started the year as captain, has been sidelined with a broken finger. Following Robertson’s absurd run of success was a hard enough job anyway for the former Munster head coach Rob Penney, but the glut of departures and injuries makes this job seem like a nightmare.

What does this mean for the All Blacks? That’s harder to say. No domestic side in the world dominates a Test XV as much as Leinster with Ireland – save for those few enjoyable years of the Jaguares with Argentina – but Crusaders players have always had a major influence on the team. Six of the 2015 side who started the Rugby World Cup final were Crusaders players, including five of the All Blacks’ pack. Richie McCaw, Andrew Mehrtens, Chris Jack, Dan Carter, Justin Marshall, Joe Moody, Wyatt Crockett, Kieran Read, plus the recent core of Taylor, Mo’unga, Barrett, Whitelock and Jordan - it’s an impressive cast.

Mo’unga seems to be desperately missed. Rivez Reihana, Taha Kemara and Riley Hohepa have all had a go at fly-half this season and are yet to hit anywhere near the same heights, partnered recently at half-back by the now 37-year-old former England international Willi Heinz.

Robertson was recently in Japan checking in with key All Blacks players who will be back for the mid-year Tests against England and Fiji; Ardie Savea (Saitama Wild Knights), Sam Cane (Tokyo Sungoliath) and Beauden Barrett (Toyota Verblitz). Mo’unga does not have the same break clause in his contract meaning he is not available this summer despite Robertson asking for New Zealand Rugby to “keep an open mind” when it comes to selecting players based overseas. Shannon Frizell is reportedly in a similar boat.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson looks on during the Super Rugby Pacific final match between the New Zealand's Blues and the Crusaders at Eden Park in Auckland
Former coach Scott Robertson is now in charge of the All Blacks - Getty Images/Michael Bradley

Taylor and Scott Barrett will of course be involved and are likely starters, while Robertson will no doubt consider a number of his former players; the props Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams, Crusaders captain David Havili and the back-rows Ethan Blackadder and Cullen Grace. Sevu Reece missed the Rugby World Cup with a knee injury but is in sharp form with four tries so far.

The point is most of those players are potential starters, not certainties. The Crusaders’ influence on the All Blacks appears to be waning, and their demise has left the door open for the other franchises in New Zealand to take charge.

Steve Borthwick will be on the ground to witness it this weekend. The England head coach flew straight to New Zealand following the conclusion of England’s Six Nations campaign to carry out some reconnaissance ahead of his first summer tour in charge of the national side, with England playing two Tests in New Zealand after an earlier game in Japan.

What Borthwick will find is that the rugby landscape in New Zealand appears to be changing. TJ Perenara’s Hurricanes top the table with the Chiefs led by Damian McKenzie in hot pursuit. But it’s the Blues, with their dual threats on the wing of Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea plus a rejuvenated Hoskins Sotutu at No 8 who can bury the Crusaders’ fading title hopes on Saturday at Eden Park. It leaves rugby in New Zealand, and the All Blacks, in an intriguing place.

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