Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Written by Max Sharp.
Scott Robertson is currently the longest-serving Head Coach amongst the New Zealand Super Rugby teams, having lead the Crusaders since 2017. Although still aged 47, the 22-test former All Black has had outstanding success already in his coaching career. Under his tutelage, Canterbury were able to win the ITM Cup (now the Bunnings NPC) twice, while he bought home the New Zealand Under 20's with a title in 2015.
Crusaders fans' excitement at his appointment was worth the wait; Robertson has won a trophy every single year as the Crusaders' Head Coach, this includes Super Rugby Aotearoa in both 2020 and 2021.
And so, this starts off the annual question... can they do it again? It is once again possible.
THREE KEY SIGNINGS FOR THE CRUSADERS:
The Crusaders will welcome nine new players into their 38-man squad for the 2022 season, while former All Black Waisake Naholo is also present in the team's wider training squad. The most mouth-watering prospect for a great season in the squad is Pablo Matera.
Matera, although stripped of his role as the Los Pumas captain for off-field controversy, remains an important player for Argentina. Matera debuted for Argentina in 2013, aged just 20, having since amassed a staggering 80 caps, placing him as their 10th-most-capped player. Nicolas Sanchez, the current record-holder, remains active at test level, but has appeared more injury prone in recent years, poising Matera to break his record. Although an openside flanker, Matera can cover both the blindside and number 8. His powerful tackling and low centre of gravity will be a great addition to the loose trio, although this could also halt the development of either Tom Christie, or 1-test former All Black, Cullen Grace.
In a very surprising move, the Crusaders have elected to pick a more experienced player to take the reigns as the third-choice first-five. Simon Hickey, who did not play for the Hurricanes in 2021, is this person, his return from overseas has seen him join a third Super Rugby team. Hickey, a calm on-field presence, with a lot of leadership, may not feature in games a lot, but will no doubt provide some tactical insights for the young Fergus Burke, who is improving rapidly. Having another mentor in the form of Hickey, could assist his development even more. If he plays a major role for the team, expect Hickey's nerves of steel to slot goals from at least 40m.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi is another back who joins his third Super Rugby franchise. Tahuriorangi, a father-of-one, has moved to Canterbury with his sights likely set on resurrecting his international career, which stalled after Brad Weber's huge form resurgence in 2019. Tahuriorangi made his All Blacks debut at 23 in 2018, he was looking promising in the small amount of game time given to him by Steve Hansen. Tahuriorangi was trusted with the 9 jersey against Japan that season, scoring a try in his first start. While some criticise his passing accuracy, Tahuriorangi is possibly the closest replica of Aaron Smith that Ian Foster could find; Folau Fakatava and TJ Perenara prefer to utilise their running game. There is definitely an opening in the 9 jersey for Tahuriorangi at the Crusaders as well. Bryn Hall turns 30 in February; he'll never be an All Black, while Mitchell Drummond's promising career stalled while he was stuck behind Hall for many years. If Tahuriorangi wants an All Black re-call, it's now or never.
THREE KEY LOSSES FOR THE CRUSADERS:
Michael Alaalatoa, a veteran of 95 Super Rugby games (including one for the Waratahs) has left for Leinster. The Samoan captain was an excellent anchor for the Crusaders' scrum, he provided the team with a high work rate around the park, while his weight of 132kg was difficult to shift at the ruck. Alaalatoa, brother of Wallaby, Allan Alaalatoa, was eligible for the All Blacks through his residency in New Zealand and was absolutely good enough to become one, but opted to represent his father's nation of birth.
Although he became almost a no-show for game-time throughout the final years of his spell with the team, you must wonder if the Crusaders' lineout will remain a potent force without the influence of Luke Romano, who played 32 tests from 2012 to 2017. The soon-to-be 36-year-old has ended a 10-year stint with the Crusaders after the team allegedly did not offer him a contract extension. Romano, a qualified builder and tourism operator, has opted to keep his professional rugby career going with the Blues, who will be more in need of his leadership. There are many who praise Romano's high rugby IQ; he has been reported to have a strong amount of say in lineout calls and how to work the driving maul at trainings.
Brett Cameron burst on to the scene in 2018, debuting for the Crusaders that year after joining the squad as a short-term player, while this was also only his second season playing for Canterbury. This did not deter Steve Hansen from selecting him for the All Blacks after Stephen Perofeta was injured, Cameron debuted against Japan while still 22 years old, becoming the first All Black to attend Cullinane College in Whanganui. Cameron's promise was evident, but despite his availability for selection, he did not play any m for the Crusaders in 2021. Cameron is clearly good enough to be an All Black right now; he scored 107 points for Manawatu in the 2021 Bunnings NPC, averaging 15.29 points per game. But instead of this, he is now in Japan, playing for the Kamaishi Seawaves. New Zealand is in dire need of a specialist second-choice 10 for the All Blacks right now, Cameron's loss is massive. All Blacks and Crusaders fans alike should be fuming over this transfer.
A POSSIBLE LINEUP FOR THE CRUSADERS IN 2022:
FULL CRUSADERS SQUAD FOR 2022:
Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), Codie Taylor and Bryn Hall communicate to the other players and the referee in 2019. Photo: Max Sharp.
* denotes a newly-signed player.
Italics denote a test-capped player.
Hookers: Shilo Klein*, Brodie McAlister, Codie Taylor
Props: George Bower, Finlay Brewis*, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Fletcher Newell, Tamaiti Williams
Locks: Scott Barrett (captain), Mitchell Dunshea, Zach Gallagher*, Quinten Strange, Samuel Whitelock
Loose Forwards: Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie, Dominic Gardiner*, Cullen Grace, Sione Havili Talitui, Corey Kellow*, Pablo Matera*
Halfbacks: Mitchell Drummond, Bryn Hall, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi*
First-Fives: Fergus Burke, Simon Hickey*, Richie Mo'unga
Midfielders: Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Dallas McLeod, Isaiah Punivai
Outside Backs: George Bridge, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Chay Fihaki, Will Jordan, Kini Naholo*, Sevu Reece
Potential MVP: Will Jordan
Potential Top Points Scorer: Richie Mo'unga
Potential Top Try-Scorer: Will Jordan
LIKELY FINISHING PLACE IN 2022:
2nd place. The Crusaders have a winning streak of five seasons in a row; this returned them to the great eras of Wayne Smith and Robbie Deans' tenures as Head Coach. This is an incredible feat which absolutely has the potential to keep going. Such a winning streak can only sustain itself so long, especially with Robertson's 84.52% win rate. Cracks in the team were showing in 2020 and 2021. 2022 might indeed be the year the Crusaders stop winning titles.