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2023 Super Rugby Preview - Crusaders

Ladies and gentlemen, the debate is over. Saying that Scott Robertson is the greatest Super Rugby coach of all time, is like saying water is wet. With six titles in a row, could this Crusaders team do the unthinkable, and win for a seventh time in a row? Maybe. After some cracks showed in 2022, perhaps the loss of Jason Ryan as forwards coach and five transfers affecting the team's spine; who knows.

18-time All Blacks captain, Sam Whitelock, is set for his final season with the Crusaders after debuting for them in 2010. Photo: Max Sharp.

If you had to pick a winner based on the squads you're seeing in paper, it would be easy to pick the Chiefs or the Blues. But with the Razor factor, as well as the fact that this will be Richie Mo'unga and Sam Whitelock's last season with the team, determination will come out from the woodworks.

Let's strap ourselves in and board the train to victory city, as we analyse the Crusaders' squad ahead of the 2023 Super Rugby season.

New Signings for the Crusaders:

George Bell

Age: 20 years old

Position: Hooker

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Canterbury

After just a single Super Rugby match, I've had messages about chances of Bell becoming an All Black. As a wider training squad member of the Crusaders in 2022, he has now been promoted to having a full contract, after injury to Ricky Jackson. Bell was the NZ Under 20s' captain for 2022, while also earning a call-up for the All Blacks XV. An exciting long-term project player.

Christian Lio-Willie

Age: 24 years old

Position: Number 8

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Highlanders

With the Highlanders contract coming after just a single NPC season, Lio-Willie is looking for more game time after a false start. Weighing in at 109kg, he is heavier than Cullen Grace, despite standing at 6cm shorter. The All Blacks XV pick will certainly be a first-choice player, having run 429 metres and completed 77/84 tackles for Otago in the 2022 NPC.

Willi Heinz

Age: 36 years old

Position: Halfback

Test Caps: 13 tests

Previous Club: Worcester Warriors (England)

Heinz' 7-year spell in England came to an end at the start of 2022, as he left Worcester to return home; previously playing 100 games for Gloucester. 13 test caps for England also included victory over the All Blacks. Not ready to retire yet, Heinz will lace the boots up for the Crusaders for the first time since 2015.

Noah Hotham

Age: 19 years old

Position: Halfback

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Tasman

How on earth did the Highlanders' selectors let such a talent slip through their fingers? Hotham's debut for Tasman was straight out of high school, while he is the younger brother of Black Ferns 7s rep, Jazmin Felix-Hotham. With a strong passing game and real strength for his stature, there's plenty of potential to harness.

Taha Kemara

Age: 19 years old

Position: First-Five

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Waikato

While his home team the Chiefs didn't have room for a new 10, Kemara has taken an even better option, learning from the nation's best 10. While Kemara played just 5 games for Waikato in 2022, his first professional season, he did not miss a tackle, also scoring 33 points, including three tries. He's a talent indeed, so can he fulfill his potential? Let's see.

Melani Nanai

Age: 29 years old

Position: Fullback

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Worcester Warriors (England)

Nanai joins Heinz as a returnee from England, though he didn't take the field for Bay of Plenty in 2022 due to injury. Many will remember his try-scoring efforts for the Blues, though the proud Samoan has instead joined the Crusaders. While Nanai is uncapped, his experience as a specialist fullback, could possibly cause headaches for Sevu Reece.

Pepesana Patafilo

Age: 26 years old

Position: Utility Back

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Hurricanes

Pepesana Patafilo won the 2022 Bunnings NPC title with Wellington. Photo: Max Sharp.

Patafilo got a good tour of Orangetheory Stadium while being crowned an NPC champion with Wellington, so has now made it home after good memories. A winger who can also cover centre, Samoa's selectors will have their eyes on Patafilo. After missing the 2022 Super Rugby season due to injury, he'll be determined for a comeback. We may see him cover the midfield a fair bit, with Jack Goodhue out for the season due to injury.

Macca Springer

Age: 19 years old

Position: Winger

Test Caps: uncapped

Previous Club: Tasman

Springer is the last of three teenagers in the team for 2023. New Crusaders assistant coach, James Marshall, has previously coached Springer at Tasman. Reminiscent of George Bridge, the case for Springer, who made 679 metres and 11 clean breaks off 54 carries in 2022, to make the All Blacks XV, could have been there. He'll learn behind the scenes before bursting onto the scene in his sophomore year.

Three Key Losses for the Crusaders:

Pablo Matera

Age: 29 years old

Position: Flanker

Test Caps: 91 tests

Destination: Mie Honda Heat (Japan)

Argentina flanker, Pablo Matera, celebrates beating the All Blacks at Orangetheory Stadium with fans, in 2022. Photo: Jasmine Saré.

The former Pumas captain is their third-most capped player of all-time, yet hasn't even turned 30. Since that's the case, it goes without saying that he'll leave a big void in the Crusaders. Matera has however, taken an excellent step towards preserving his big body for the Rugby World Cup, knowing the toll year-round rugby has taken on many teammates.

Bryn Hall

Age: 30 years old

Position: Halfback

Test Caps: uncapped

Destination: Shizuoka Blue Revs

After 87 games for North Harbour and 93 for the Crusaders, Hall had nothing left to prove at club level, but a sub-par season in 2022 shut his chances on a black jersey for good. While Mitchell Drummond is also experienced, nobody can say someone with Hall's experience won't have some kind of effect. Hall made the right decision for himself though, good on him.

George Bridge

Age: 27 years old

Position: Winger

Test Caps: 19 tests

Destination: Montpellier Hérault Rugby (France)

Billy Proctor of Wellington attempts to tackle George Bridge (centre) in the 2022 Bunnings NPC Final. Photo: Max Sharp.

Back in 2018, Bridge essentially signed the perfect length for a contract. His deal to 2022 allowed for the start and finish of his 19 All Blacks tests, that included 12 tries. It was clear for Bridge that the writing was on the wall after his 2021 season, but with France calling, he can now set himself up for life, joining All Blacks teammate Karl Tu'inukuafe, at Montpellier.

A Possible First-Choice XV for the Crusaders:

  1. Joe Moody

  2. Codie Taylor

  3. Fletcher Newell

  4. Scott Barrett (c)

  5. Sam Whitelock

  6. Cullen Grace

  7. Tom Christie

  8. Christian Lio-Willie

  9. Mitchell Drummond

  10. Richie Mo'unga

  11. Leicester Fainga'anuku

  12. David Havili

  13. Braydon Ennor

  14. Sevu Reece

  15. Will Jordan

Full Crusaders Squad for 2023:

*denotes newly-signed player.

Italics denote a test-capped player.

+ denotes a player ruled out for the season due to injury.

Hookers: George Bell*, Brodie McAlister, Codie Taylor

Props: George Bower, Finlay Brewis, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Fletcher Newell, Tamaiti Williams

Locks: Scott Barrett, Mitchell Dunshea, Zach Gallagher, Quinten Strange, Sam Whitelock

Loose Forwards: Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie, Dominic Gardiner, Cullen Grace, Sione Havili Talitui, Corey Kellow, Christian Lio-Willie*

Halfbacks: Mitchell Drummond, Willi Heinz*, Noah Hotham*

First-Fives: Fergus Burke, Taha Kemara*, Richie Mo'unga

Midfielders: Braydon Ennor, Jack Goodhue+, David Havili, Dallas McLeod

Outside Backs: Leicester Fainga'anuku, Chay Fihaki, Will Jordan, Melani Nanai*, Pepesana Patafilo*, Sevu Reece, Macca Springer*

2-test All Black, Leicester Fainga'anuku, will look to return to form with the Crusaders, after a demoralising second half of 2022. Photo: Max Sharp.

Potential MVP: Scott Barrett

Potential Top Points Scorer: Richie Mo'unga

Potential Top Try-Scorer: Will Jordan

Likely Finishing Place in 2022:

Semi-Finals. With SANZAAR's continued inability to understand fair use laws, I'll have to resort to squad analytics instead of video analysis for this one. Back on course though, continuous victory tends to either come from constant innovation, or team cohesion built over a period of time. With 11 players in Robertson's class of 2017 still remaining, but 65 players exiting the team at some stage during the Robertson era, it's a bit of a blended case; with most of those 11 being first-choice players at one stage or another.

The Crusaders' 2022 Super Rugby Final vs the Blues was their sixth trophy in a row, despite some concern earlier in the season.

During 2022, the Crusaders were also exposed at times for having forwards with slow ruck speed, while the "winners' mentality", did receive challenges. Chances are, that Blues and Chiefs analysts, have started noticing patterns in the Crusaders' play, that I haven't; with this information passed over to the coaches. 2022 showed that the champions are indeed beatable, you just need to time the victory correctly.

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