Crusaders in a league of their own

10:26 am on 25 February 2019

Opinion - We might as well call the whole thing off now.

Quinten Strange of the Crusaders during the Super Rugby match Crusaders v Hurricanes, at Christchurch Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Crusaders forward Quinten Strange on the charge in their Super Rugby match against the Hurricanes in Christchurch. Photo: Photosport

The Crusaders pretty much made it three Super Rugby titles in succession, on Saturday night. A final score of Crusaders 38 Hurricanes 22 doesn't do the victors justice.

Beyond the Crusaders, the Hurricanes have been New Zealand's other elite team in recent seasons, yet looked decidedly second-rate in Christchurch. And not for the first time either.

The Hurricanes topped the round-robin standings in 2015 and 2016, winning the title in the second of those seasons. In 2017 and 2018, when the Crusaders were crowned champions, the Hurricanes were next cab off the rank.

Chris Boyd was a man who said many interesting things as Hurricanes head coach. Now director of rugby at English club Northampton, Boyd wasn't blinded by allegiance.

Many folk rushed to acclaim those 2015 and 2016 Hurricanes' sides. Boyd was proud of them too, but always realistic.

He said the truth about those seasons was that the Crusaders were poor, by their own high standards. Under Scott Robertson in 2017 and 2018, they returned to being the Crusaders of old.

Yes, it was nice to win a maiden Super Rugby title for the Hurricanes, but people shouldn't forget how big a part the Crusaders' struggles played. When the Crusaders are organised and enthused, Boyd said, they are the best.

And so it proved on Saturday night, roaring out to a 24-0 half-time lead at AMI Stadium. That was the cue for star turns such as Joe Moody, then Scott Barrett, to sit on the bench and for the Hurricanes to score a few cheap points.

In taking over from Boyd, new Hurricanes head coach John Plumtree identified set-pieces as being the side's major offseason work-on. Previously assistant coach under Boyd, Plumtree was only too aware of games such as last season's semi-final in Christchurch, when the Hurricanes' pack was monstered.

Well, that set-piece work hasn't paid immediate dividends. The Hurricanes could hardly win a lineout, or set a steady scrum this time either and you doubt they have the personnel to turn that around anytime soon.

They were without prop Toby Smith (concussion) and lock Sam Lousi (pectoral tear), but then again the Crusaders' pack was hardly at full strength either.

First five-eighth Beauden Barrett didn't feature, while halfback TJ Perenara was on the bench, so Hurricanes enthusiasts can suggest the team would be better with both those men starting. Only, as Plumtree knows, neither player can do much when the pack is being dominated.

After all, that's how the phony Beauden Barrett v Richie Mo'unga first-five debate started last year. People saw Mo'unga shine in the 2018 semi-final, while Barrett struggled, and assumed he was simply a better player.

Never mind that five-eighths, and halfbacks for that matter, are simply at the mercy of their forwards.

Which leaves us, just two weeks into the Super Rugby season, with a one-horse title race.

People have always said the 2019 competition was the Crusaders' to lose. Which isn't quite the same as saying they'll win it.

There's wriggle room there and rightly so, maybe. Despite two titles in as many seasons, Robertson still arouses scepticism in some. They see the unusual public persona and assume the man's not all there.

Robertson's different, all right, but he's also a winner. As he proved as a technical adviser, assistant coach and head coach with Canterbury and now into his third season running the Crusaders.

People admired his work in 2017 and 2018 but wondered how he'd go in a Rugby World Cup year. The Crusaders' forwards aren't in the first flush of youth and with a world cup to think of, and All Blacks-prescribed weeks off and restrictions on playing time, there was basis for an argument that 2019 might not be their year.

Well, two weeks in, it'll be a brave person who says the Crusaders won't make it three titles on the trot.

Giddy up.

* Hamish Bidwell is a contributor to Radio New Zealand. He has previously worked at The Northern Advocate, Gisborne Herald, Hawke's Bay Today, The Press, The Dominion Post and Stuff.

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