All Blacks legend downplays Crusaders' defeat to Waratahs
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Former All Blacks wing Jeff Wilson says he doesn’t read anything into the shock Super Rugby Pacific win by the Waratahs over the Crusaders in Sydney on Saturday.
The Waratahs stunned the competition by registering a 24-21 upset victory over Scott Robertson’s serial champions in front of a packed and boisterous crowd at Leichardt Oval to deliver Australia with its second win over Kiwi opposition this season.
Ranked seventh on the table heading into that match, four places below the Crusaders, the Waratahs were widely expected to fall victim to the might of the visitors, who are chasing their sixth title in as many years.
However, Darren Coleman’s men managed to pull off one of the upsets of the year to put themselves within four points of a top four.
The feat was all the more remarkable given how the Waratahs fared last year when they went winless throughout Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman in what was their worst seasons ever.
Speaking on The Breakdown, Wilson was impressed by how much the Waratahs have improved between last year’s campaign and this season but made note that little should be made of the result from the perspective of the Crusaders.
The former 60-test international said that while the win was immense for the Waratahs, the absence of star Crusaders flyhalf Richie Mo’unga – who was sidelined due to All Blacks rest protocols – had an undoubted impact on how the game transpired.
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“This team was struggling last year. They were young, inexperienced – they’ve got some players into their environment who have made a huge difference,” Wilson said of the Waratahs on The Breakdown.
“Michael Hooper, in that environment, has led them from the front. He is a world-class leader and player, but two words: Richie Mo’unga, was not playing in this game for the Crusaders.
“He is their talisman, he is their best player. He has been multiple time Super Rugby Player of the Year, so when you take a key player, a key piece of your puzzle out of it, your first-five, you don’t win this competition without a world-class flyhalf.
“It is proven over time in history, so I don’t read anything into this result, other than the fact that they’ve now lost control of their destiny, particularly about controlling playing at home in the playoffs.
“For me, Scott Robertson’s got some things that he’ll want to deal with, but in the end, his best player, his most influential player, was not playing because he was on rest duties. It was time for him to have a week off.”
By comparison, All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan said the result was reflective of the culture the Waratahs have developed since Coleman’s arrival ahead of this season.
The 1987 World Cup-winning wing added that the Crusaders have been guilty of starting matches unusually sluggishly, which he attributed as a key factor in their defeat.
“The Crusaders are starting slow. They’re traditionally really good starters, they put pressure on at the start of the game. They’ve been starting slow all year, but I also think the Waratahs have been building,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.
“When you listen to them after the game and you listen to them talk, they’re saying ‘we’re building a family’, you can see the culture starting to turn around, and I think they played out of themselves.”
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All Blacks centurion Mils Muliaina agreed with Kirwan’s assessment of the Crusaders, noting that they, and the other four New Zealand teams, were “flat-footed” compared to their Australian counterparts.
As such, Muliaina suggested that’s why three Australian teams – the Waratahs, Brumbies and Rebels – all picked up victories in the latest round.
“They had the perfect start, 17-odd points up,” Muliaina said of the Waratahs in their match against the Crusaders.
“You’ve got some good, young talent, some real superstars that can sort of make breaks from anywhere, then it was really that factor of what they’re building, the fact they’re building that culture to absolutely brings it home.
“I’m with you, JK, the Crusaders are starting slow, but I think all of the New Zealand teams just looked like they’re a little bit flat-footed.
“They’re not as excited as what we have seen from the past, and it’s almost as if the Australian teams have come out and are really motivated, they’re refreshed, and they can’t wait to get into us.”