The Crusaders’ poor performance against the Queensland Reds on Sunday isn’t in itself huge cause for concern for the franchise. The coaching staff will chalk it up to being one of those outings when things just didn’t click, and while the accuracy needs to improve, the Cantabrians still look to be peaking at the right end of the season.
However, there were some ominous signs for the red and blacks, and indeed for New Zealand rugby in general, primarily in the way an unheralded loose forward trio managed to out-passion, and actually dominate, the Crusaders, including All Black captain-in-waiting Kieran Reid and up-and-coming star Matt Todd, at the breakdown.
For the last couple of years the talk around rugby circles has been that Todd is the next ‘freak’, who will inevitably inherit Richie McCaw’s number 7 jersey. He might not be a Michael Jones or a McCaw, but he is the next Josh Kronfeld or Scott Robertson, which in reality will more than suffice. But the fact of the matter is, he hasn’t really kicked on.
He had huge raps on him as he climbed the Junior ranks, and his first two seasons in the Canterbury NPC squad did little to dispel the lofty expectations that were heaped on him. So much so in fact that he was widely discussed as the likely replacement for McCaw, should the All Blacks’ leader have been forced to withdraw from the World Cup.
But this year he has been missing in action, unable to leave his mark on any of the Crusaders’ matches to date. And McCaw’s return to the side, and the influence he has played within the side when he’s joined the fray from the bench, underlines just how far New Zealand is from finding a replacement openside flanker.
Around the other New Zealand Super Rugby franchises the pickings are no better. Adam Thomson (Highlanders) and Liam Messam (Chiefs) have had more than their fair share of opportunities and neither has proved themselves capable of filling a long-term void at 7, while the Blues brothers of Luke and Daniel Braid are both capable players, without being anything particularly special. The Hurricanes’ Karl Lowe is playing well, but is benefitting more from a team which is playing cohesively than by any genuine freakish talent of his own.
So Todd remains the NZRFU’s best option as they crystal ball gaze to the day when McCaw hangs up his international boots, but there is still plenty of development and growth needed from the young Crusaders’ flanker before those boots will be a snug fit.