The Crusaders backline was supposed to struggle in the Super 18 this year. A new coach, the loss of key weapon Nemani Nadolo and retirement of stalwart Andy Ellis meant that 2017 should have been a year of transition. Instead, the Crusaders are on a hugely impressive 10-match unbeaten streak which has led a growing number of commentators ask: are these ‘strugglers’ now All Black material?
During the early rounds of the Super 18, the Hurricanes and Chiefs grabbed the spotlight and players like Beauden and Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie and the emerging talents of Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso generated speculation about their All Blacks prospects. In the meantime, the Crusaders went about their business with little fanfare, starting the season with three come from behind victories and were seen as a team becoming more than the sum of its parts. The forward pack, led by captain Sam Whitelock and with an All Black front row, were bruising and efficient. Much of the success in the first half of the season was laid at their feet.
However, since the impressive 41-22 round 6 victory against the Warratahs away, the Crusaders have moved up another level in attacking menace and are now playing with more potency in attack than the lethal and lauded Wellington Hurricanes. In the Crusaders’ next four games the scores were 50-3 vs Sunwolves, 57-24 vs Stormers, 48-21 vs Cheetahs and 62 – 24 vs the Bulls. In their last five games they have scored 39 tries, compared to the Hurricanes 30. Yet as individuals, only the injured Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty would be considered real possibilities to be selected for the All Blacks squad against the Lions.
So who are the unsung heroes from down South? A look through the team stats and highlight reels shows they are very young and inexperienced but fit, skillful and mentally strong. Here is a quick guide to the largely unheralded Crusaders backs who are starting to create a stir in New Zealand rugby.
Havili is a prime example of the undervalued Crusaders backline. he was supposed to be filling in for Israel Dagg while he recovered from a knee injury but such has been Havili’s form, Dagg may struggle to get game time when he returns. While up and comers like Jordie Barrett have hogged the headlines, Havili’s form over the whole season is actually more impressive. Both Havili and Barrett have played 9 games and the 22 year-old leads Barrett in tries (6 to 4), defenders beaten (39 to 19), clean breaks (17 to 10), metres run (745 to 502) and has a far superior tackle success rate (65% to 48%) while Barrett leads in try assists (4 to 3) and offloads (19-13). So why isn’t Havili a more prominent blip on the All Black radar?
22-year-old Bridge scored back to back hat-tricks against the Stormers and Cheetahs, and sits third on the list of top try-scorers thisseason so far with 8. If we compare Bridge’s performance this season to All Black winger Julian Savea, once again the Crusader player comes out on top. Bridge has higher totals in tries (8 to 6), defenders beaten (34 to 23), clean breaks (17 to 16), metres gained (646 to 460) and carries (89 to 69). Savea only outpoints him in tackle success (70% to 69%), offloads (8 to 7) and try assists (2 to 1). Bridge is strong, pacy, has lots of steely determination and the skills to cover both wing and fullback – surely All Black qualities?
Another youngster in the red and black, 21 year-old Goodhue has gradually found his form and confidence in his debut Super 18 season and after missing most of last season through injury. Like George Bridge, Goodhue is a New Zealand age group representative, and scored an impressive brace of tries, beat 9 defenders and made 5 clean breaks against the Bulls last Saturday. Defensively sound and with strong offloading and passing skills, he could be a real contender for the end of year Northern tour.
Richie Mo’unga’s talent rivals Beauden Barrett’s. After an exceptional rookie season taking over at flyhalf from a certain Daniel Carter, Mo’unga has returned from an early season injury and worked himself back into the sensational form of 2016. With Aaron Cruden moving to Montpellier next season, 22-year-old Mo’unga will be locked in battle with Lima Sopoaga and possibly Damian McKenzie for the deputy flyhalf position. This writer would love to see Mo’unga at flyhalf and Beauden Barrett at fullback and sit back and watch the fireworks.
Tamanivalu has battled back from his nervy and underwhelming All Blacks performances against Wales last season. Blessed with an abundance of athletic talent, he has moved out to the wing and impressed all with his consistency, power and finishing ability. Tough to see him in line for a recall against the Lions, but he may come into calculations for the Northern tour, particularly because of his versatility.