Opinion: End of an era - is the clock ticking on Crusaders' dynasty?

Patrick McKendry
Source: 1News

There is often a wistful element to grand final celebrations in professional team sport – a sense that time is slipping by and that this group of players will never assemble again. There's usually also a visceral appreciation of what it takes to scale such a difficult peak and how difficult it will be for those trying to do it again next year.

Richie Mo'unga will play another season at the Crusaders before taking a two-year break.

In between the singing, chanting and spraying inside and outside the Crusaders dressing room at Eden Park after their 21-7 Super Rugby Pacific final victory over the Blues on Saturday night, and in the days after, that has been the vibe leaking through the cracks of their wall-to-wall partying.

Changes are coming now and far more significantly next year.

Halfback Bryn Hall, a former Blues player who represents Auckland club Northcote and who has been an integral part of the Crusaders machine on their title run stretching back to 2017, is leaving for Japan.

It was Hall, described as “meticulous” by coach Scott Robertson, who helped keep the Crusaders’ tempo so high in difficult conditions and who scored the converted try on halftime which effectively closed the door on the Blues.

Loose forward Pablo Matera, who was in the final after escaping a card sanction and played a defining role via his relentless defence and kick through for Sevu Reece’s try (which locked the door), is also leaving – in his case after one year. It’s understood he’s also seeking Japan’s money.

Read more: How clinical Crusaders scaled heights to leave Blues down and out

So while it might be foolish to suggest the clock is ticking on the Crusaders’ dynasty – 13 titles in total and six for head coach Robertson, one for every year of his reign – there is no doubt a significant era in their history and that of New Zealand rugby is far closer to its end than the start.

The charismatic Robertson, knocked back for the All Blacks’ top job in favour of Ian Foster, has one more year to run on his Crusaders contract and will leave these shores if he doesn’t get the top gig for 2024 onwards.

Given England’s underwhelming Six Nations and very recent humiliation at the hands of a scratch Barbarians team, who played with 14 men for most of the game at Twickenham, there may even be those among the corridors of England rugby eager to cut Eddie Jones for the man known as Razor before next year’s World Cup.

Certainly, the drums among an English rugby media astonished that such a successful and popular coach hasn’t been recognised in his own country will only sound louder from here.

Richie Mo’unga, 28, the Crusaders’ little magician who seemed to warp time and space by his will alone against the Blues, has one more year on his contract before he’ll take up what is likely to be an extremely lucrative two-year contract in Japan.

Sam Whitelock, 33, who played the final with a broken thumb and whose eye was blackening during the first half of a match which he nevertheless ruled with an iron fist, is also contracted only until the end of next year.

Pablo Matera finally got his wish - now he's leaving the Crusaders for a more lucrative contract.

And assistant coach Andrew Goodman, a man who has excelled with both Tasman and the Crusaders, will now depart for Irish powerhouse Leinster.

There was a glimpse of the very near future on Saturday night when props Fletcher Newell, 22, and Tamaiti Williams, 21, took to the field in the second half and more than held their own against All Blacks counterparts Ofa Tuungafasi and Karl Tu’inukuafe.

The Crusaders pair were part of a succession plan inspired and carried out by forwards coach Jason Ryan, himself a flight risk as he’ll likely to leave when Robertson does.

But for all of the end-of-an-era feel this season, next year it will be inescapable, and probably from pre-season, as the Crusaders attempt to do it all over again for the final time under Robertson et al.

As Robertson reflected on the departures of Hall and Matera, he could have been talking about someone far closer to home.

“It becomes time, and everyone has their reasons for it,” Robertson said. “Bryn has been incredible for the last six years for us. He’s the ultimate competitor, isn’t he? Each week he turns up and is meticulous.”

On his Argentine star, Robertson said: “He’s talked about how important it is for kids in Argentina and how they can transcend… how they can go to other teams and play at a high level. He asked to come here to win a championship but to do it is another thing, so we’re pleased for him.

“It’s sad – we’d loved to have kept him, but he’s decided to take another opportunity.”