21 Apr 2024

Super Rugby Pacific: Crusaders and Highlanders in a race to the bottom

9:58 am on 21 April 2024

Analysis - A few decades from now, a long retired Western Force player will be sitting with his grandkid on his knee. He'll be asked a question: "Granddad, tell us about the time you beat the 16-time Super Rugby champion Crusaders by 22 points?"

The old man will run his hands through his grey hair and contemplates the choice he has to make. Does he bask in the moment and gregariously regale the kid in story of underdog heroics, of fighting alongside his comrades for the glory of a far-flung rugby outpost where every victory was cherished like there was no tomorrow?

Or does he simply put the kid on the floor and tell the truth, admitting that they simply stuck to their game plan, got the job done and would have been pretty disappointed if they hadn't beaten the Crusaders that night in Perth - because almost everyone managed to that season.

Back in the here and now, the Force's 37-15 win was simply a case of them playing to their strengths, relying on the added talent of newly acquired Kurtley Beale and simply waiting for their opposition to make the same mistakes they have in their other six losses.

The only upside for Crusaders fans is that at least it wasn't the worst loss by a New Zealand team this weekend, that dubious honour goes to the blokes down the road.

The Highlanders were flogged 31-0 by the Reds in Brisbane, the Queenslanders not only missing its two best players to suspension but not even really playing that well to record the big win.

So, what's going on with the two South Island teams and what can be done to fix things? A good start would be to start asking some serious questions about both coaching staffs, while plenty of leeway was given to Rob Penney and Tamati Ellison given the state of things when they took over, it was never envisaged that the Crusaders would be in danger of missing the most generous playoff system in professional sport.

The Crusaders and Highlanders had a weekend to forget in Super Rugby Pacific.

The Crusaders and Highlanders had a weekend to forget in Super Rugby Pacific. Photo: Albert Perez, Janelle St Pierre/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Highlanders have just been awful under Clarke Dermody, with no real sign of improvement other than the likes of Billy Harmon and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens valiantly trying to do everything themselves.

To put it in perspective: the Highlanders have Rhys Patchell and Martín Bogado on their books, two players who played for Wales and Argentina respectively last year. Both found themselves out playing club rugby yesterday in Dunedin because they'd been left out of the Highlanders squad that travelled to Australia. That's presumably a fair bit of investment to bring in two overseas test players, only to end up having them line up against a bunch of uni students and freezing works employees halfway through the season.

Right now, it looks like moving to either the Crusaders and Highlanders is a sure-fire way to kill your career, just ask Levi Aumua and Timoci Tavatavanawai as well. When they signed their transfers last year, they certainly weren't thinking their old teammates at Moana Pasifika would be staring down at them from a higher spot on the ladder after nine rounds.

Penney and Dermody's only saving grace is that this is New Zealand, and firing coaches is something even the national governing body is too squeamish to do because that would be admitting they got it wrong in the first place.

Hurricanes sweat on Aumua injury, Blues bash bemusing Brumbies

The Canes managed to do what no one else has so far this year by beating the Fijian Drua at home, although it should be noted that while it was still certainly hot and humid, the evening kick-off in Suva made it significantly more bearable for them. The 38-15 win probably ticked all of coach Clark Laidlaw's boxes performance-wise given the result was settled by halftime and the Canes showed some great determination on defence, but it was hampered by an injury to the in-form Asafo Aumua.

They're off to their best start ever in a Super Rugby campaign, which is not only credit to Laidlaw but the willingness of the organisation to think a bit outside the box by appointing him, given that he's not a born and bred local and hasn't come through the traditional coaching pathway.

While the Blues were certainly very good in their 46-7 dismemberment of the Brumbies at Eden Park and deserve a lot of praise, it's hard not to wonder how the top ranked Australian side was so mesmerisingly bad. They'd only lost one game coming into this fixture but let the Blues lineout drive simply walk through them several times, gave away a string of penalties and simply not looking like they wanted to even be there at all. They only improved momentarily when coach Stephen Larkham emptied his bench in the second half, something he should've done half an hour earlier.