Analysis: The player the Crusaders cannot afford to be without

Richie Mo'unga in action against the Highlanders in round two - the only match the Crusaders have won this season.

Six years ago, when Blues coach Leon MacDonald was an assistant coach of the Crusaders as the red and blacks began a run of six Super Rugby championships, he was asked about a then 23-year-old first-five by the name of Richie Mo’unga.

The occasion was a final press conference before the Crusaders played the British and Irish Lions in Christchurch, and MacDonald’s inquisitor wanted to get an idea about Mo’unga’s readiness for what back then was one of the biggest games of his career. He had made his Crusaders debut a year earlier.

"There is a lot of Dan Carter in Richie Mo'unga," MacDonald replied. "Very rarely do you see him rattled at all, at any level. He's very casual ... I think you need that temperament as a 10 because there's a lot of pressure.

“He doesn't seem to be fazed and for a young guy to control a team like the Crusaders, with a lot of big personalities, a lot of big strong men who have played a lot of rugby - to run the ship as confidently as he does at his age is a real credit to him."

MacDonald’s answer could have put more pressure on Mo’unga and for him to respond in that way spoke volumes about the player’s talent and his coaches’ confidence in him.

On Saturday, the man who has since played 44 Tests for the All Blacks will run out for the red and blacks against the MacDonald-coached Blues at Eden Park; the scene of last year’s Super Rugby grand final where Mo’unga played a starring role against a familiar rival in Beauden Barrett.

The Crusaders lost against the Lions on a cold June night – they don’t lose many when Mo’unga starts for them – and in fact a case can easily be made that right now, in his final Super Rugby season, he has never been more important for his franchise.

He was, of course, instrumental in the Crusaders’ crushing final victory over the Blues in the middle of last year which snapped the home side’s 14-game winning streak.

Quite simply, Mo’unga is a player the Crusaders cannot do without and is becoming more important to them by the year.

Richie Mo'unga shakes hands with Beauden Barrett after navigating the Crusaders to victory over the Blues in last year's grand final.

If last weekend’s surprise defeat to the Drua in Lautoka was a glimpse of the future without Mo’unga - a player at the height of his powers who is cashing in on an overseas contract after the World Cup - then it is not a promising one.

Coach Scott Robertson will also be gone next year and while Fergus Burke is a competent footballer who does the fundamentals well, it was clear against the Drua that the Crusaders are not the same team without Mo’unga at the helm.

They scored four tries against the Drua but three of them came via lineout drives. Their attack was, to put it politely, stilted against a fired-up side who wanted to prove a point in difficult, hot conditions. In fact, it was notable for its lack of direction.

Once their experienced second-five David Havili left the field with an injury in the first half, Burke, 23, was under even more pressure. The Drua’s backs made five clean breaks throughout. The Crusaders made one all game through centre Braydon Ennor.

One of Mo’unga’s most obvious talents is his ability to commit an opposition’s defence and therefore create space for his outside backs.

But it’s his game awareness, especially in big matches, which sets him apart, and Saturday’s is a big one for the Crusaders.

They will run on to Eden Park with a 1-2 start to the season and while they have time to find something resembling championship-winning form – the top eight of 12 sides make the playoffs in one of the most undemanding cuts in rugby – serious questions of their credentials will be asked should they drop another.

Is the World Cup a distraction to their many All Blacks? What about Robertson and the All Blacks' coaching drama?

As ever, Mo’unga is the answer.

And the Crusaders must make the most of him while they can.


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