The March of the Crusaders

The Aotearoa title looks to be heading to Rugby Park - let's look at why

This was supposed to be a rebuilding period for the Crusaders. After their win over the Jaguares in the 2019 Super Rugby final – their third Super Rugby title in a row – the Crusaders were set to lose experienced leaders like Kieran Read‚ Owen Franks‚ Jordan Taufua‚ Ryan Crotty and Matt Todd en-masse, with Sam Whitelock heading away for a one-year sabbatical that would keep him out of Super Rugby 2020.

If we discount the now returned Sam Whitelock, that’s still 693 Crusader caps and 309 All Black tests worth of experience that the Crusaders lost at the final whistle of the 2019 Super Rugby final. They were facing into a period of rebuilding without a doubt.

And yet.

Prior to the lockdown, the Crusaders were third in the overall standings in Super Rugby and top of the New Zealand conference with one loss from six games – against the Chiefs, strangely enough – and they’re currently one win away from winning the Tu Kotahi Aotearoa trophy after a massively impressive Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign that has only seen them narrowly lose once to the Hurricanes.

I think I’d feel comfortable in saying that they have the best defence in Super Rugby Aotearoa, the joint highest amount of tries scored, the most effective lineout, and the best scrum in the tournament. You can talk about their outstanding core of new – or relatively new – players like Ennor, Jordan, Bridge, Reece, Goodhue or Fainga’anuku but, for me, it’s their system and collective skill set that has elevated them above their local competitors.

The Crusaders know who they are, what they are good at and what kind of on-field scenario they want to avoid.

If we look at the most common end-product for the Crusaders, it’s a picture like this off a lineout;

George Bridge taking the ball in the third layer of a lineout strike with Leicester Fainga’anuku on his inside shoulder, Will Jordan on his outside shoulder and Sevu Reece hugging the touchline. This was quite an unusual action off a 5-man lineout thrown to the front when you think about it. The key men are Goodhue, Mo’unga and Jordan.

To start, Drummond floated a long pass to Goodhue in a central position. From there, we can identify three distinct layers of depth to the Crusaders attack.

The Chiefs will have been confident in their ability to win a collision with Goodhue (or even the pop to Sione Havili on his outside shoulder) but it still has to be guarded against because of Goodhue’s passing. So the focus for the defensive line will be Guard The First Collision, then push Up and Out to cover a wider Crusaders attack.

The Crusaders’ flankers, Havili and Christie run inside pinch lines to stand up the blitzing defence and force isolations on the outside defensive line.

Watch how the last three edge defenders on the Chiefs line react to the timing of Christie’s decoy line. Keep an eye on how both Havili and Christie continue their inside lines to take out the maximum number of Chiefs defenders possible as they track the play across the field.

Mo’unga wipes the ball across to Bridge with Christie chopping up the line to isolate three defenders. That line from Christie creates a pocket for Bridge to attack at pace.

The key here is the options that Bridge has to work with. He’s got Fainga’anuku on his inside shoulder and Will Jordan absolutely steaming up on his outside from the third layer, with Reece running a hard route on the touchline. That gives an entire array of options to George Bridge as he attacks around the corner at pace.

That principle of depth, width and late-arriving pace is a core principle in teams who’ve got a lot of strike running options in the outside backs, as the Crusaders certainly do. You could make an argument that their back three is one of the best in the sport right now, so why wouldn’t your style of play look to maximise their touches?

They have a pretty strong pack – even without Scott Barrett – but you tend not to see them cycle through the phases with the forwards unless they’ve got clear forward momentum. Tom Sanders, Tom Christie, Whetu Douglas, Sam Whitelock, Mike Ala’alatoa, Cody Taylor and Sione Havili are all decent ball carriers but they aren’t guys who are going to knock down the door for you regularly if you run out of momentum. Christie and Havili have played a fair bit for the Crusaders over the last few weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa on the flanks and both look like Action Flankers with Tom Sanders and Whetu Douglas acting as a half-lock.

This is a pack that is built to move the ball, rather than trying to advance it directly off #9 for multiple consecutive phases.

In fact, if you look at the Crusaders work in positive outcomes after three phases, they have the fourth-“worst” record in Super Rugby Aotearoa. Basically, they kick the ball back to the opposition after three phases more than any other side in Super Rugby Aotearoa and I think a lot of that is informed by their style of play and squad composition.

And yes, they kick the ball away a fair bit but watch out when you exchange kicks with them – the Crusaders are excellent in transition and Bridge/Ennor/Jordan/Reese/Pa’ea/Mo’unga/Fainga’anuku are all comfortable handling the ball in fluid, crowded spaces.

On their regular structures, the Crusaders can bang the ball up off #9 in a pod of three but that seems to be a template setter rather than a preferred option. They want to establish that possibility as a threat to open up options elsewhere, rather than using the pod off #9 as a primary means of advancing the ball up the field.

Even then, the Crusaders tend to hit off #9 with width and movement as key principles.

Sometimes that can lead to situations like the above. If retaining the ball at all costs was the key, you’d see them align closer to the ruck to narrow the contact point but they want to strike wider to create momentum.

That’s why they tend to hit beyond the third defender a lot on these types of carries to kick up the pace of their phase play. What they really want to do is establish the threat of the carry off #9 so they can start moving the ball through the hands.

You can make out their 3-2-2 scheme quite clearly here and how that willingness to pass plays into it.

Fainga’anuku is tucked in off the wing to offer a layered runner with Sione Havili and Tom Christie offering themselves in the wide two-pod but the strength in this is the three passes after the pass from #9. This is the kind of play the Crusaders want with the forwards showing off their full skill set to open up a wider opportunity.

When you look at the outside backs that the Crusaders have in their ranks, you see a lot of common themes. Jack Goodhue is their nailed on second-five and his physical qualities and skill set are pretty unique. He’s a primary playmaker for the team alongside Mo’unga and David Havili. Outside him, you have guys like Braydon Ennor, Fetuli Paea, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan, Leicester Fainga’anuku and George Bridge who have complementary skill sets and physical profiles.

There’s an element of interchangeability about a lot of the Crusaders work outside Goodhue. Paea takes the ball here but it’s the position he takes it in that’s interesting.

Will Jordan takes the pass from Mo’unga and releases Paea with all the outside backs bar Reece swarming on the position. Paea was the target here but the point is that it could have been anyone. For much of the second half against the Chiefs at the weekend, the Crusaders didn’t really have a specific midfielder or “outside centre” alongside Goodhue. Their system allowed Reece, Fainga’anuku, Bridge and Jordan to rotate into position whenever necessary.

In fact, the only player who consistently stayed out on the wing was Sevu Reece – all of Fainga’anuku, Bridge and Jordan looped into central plays depending on the context of the previous ruck.

A lot of the Crusaders wider plays start with the pod of three off #9 slanting “open”.

This allows for Hall or Drummond to target every single one of the pod and have plays radiating off it. See how the slanted pod keeps the outside runner in the game up until the ball reaches Jordan’s hands?

See how the slanted pod off #9 keeps all the options open for Drummond and opens up Bower to pass back to Mo’unga and then deeper still to Jordan?

Remember that lineout? Depth, pace, width.

That slanted pod makes everything that little bit more difficult for the forwards. Their passing has to be exact in its direction and timing. The forward outside the pass target in the pod has to have good instincts as to when and how they target their line – they have to commit their opposite defender and, hopefully, scrag them as the ball advances.

When you apply these principles of depth and width you open up the picture that the Crusaders want on their phase play. I think this is the clearest example.

Multiple passes to deep-lying layered runners that take the ball outside the last blitzing defender.

When Goodhue takes this ball in the second layer, the Chiefs outside defence have to consider the players in the second later. The edge defender has to make up huge ground to meet the point of the ball because the key moment happens so far back from the original gainline.

Will Jordan is the player backed to make this pass but it could be any of Bridge, Ennor, Paea or whoever. The role is the same. The Chiefs only saved a try here after a deliberate knockdown once the ball flowed out to Reese.

This is the Crusaders overall phase play scheme in microcosm –  they use their mobile flankers to support one of the paciest, well rounded outside backline (11/13/14/15) currently playing the game.