Which version of Richie Mo'unga will arrive at the All Blacks?
OPINION: There is enough evidence now to suggest that Richie Mo’unga is the best number 10 on the planet when playing for the Crusaders.
There is not a player who can rival his attacking production over the last two years in Super Rugby, in any position, on either side of the ditch.
Over the last two seasons, Mo’unga ripped apart Kiwi opposition in Super Rugby Aotearoa on the way to two more titles, in addition to the three Super Rugby titles he was a part of before that.
Now faced against Australian opposition, Mo’unga is torturing placid defences unable to play at the speed the Crusaders are used to and we are seeing a player at the peak of his powers in the form of his life.
The one thing that Australian sides can show us is just how great the Crusaders really are. A quantifiable degree can be ascertained by looking at the magnitude of the score lines. Fifty point beatings were not a regularity before Covid.
The battle-hardened Crusaders, forged through the test-level intensity of Super Rugby Aotearoa, have been unleashed on their Australian counterparts and the results are eye-popping.
The question can be asked whether this form by Mo’unga is greater than the level that Beauden Barrett reached in 2016-18 for the Hurricanes, and the answer seems to be yes.
Barrett was brilliant, yet against the toughest opposition he was often contained. He was dominant against New Zealand teams in patches, but not as consistently as Mo’unga has been.
The Crusaders, particularly when in Christchurch, had Barrett’s number after the 2016 title and the pendulum of Super Rugby power swung from Chris Boyd’s Hurricanes to Scott Robertson’s Crusaders.
Barrett helped make the Hurricanes great for a short window of time, but they could not help him maintain his greatness.
Barrett’s impact in any game is determined by the supporting cast and the talent around him among other factors. That is where Mo’unga had and continues to have an advantage at Super Rugby level, with a best-in-class organisation that has put together a stretch for the ages.
However, the difference between the two is Barrett’s form continued with the All Blacks whereas Mo’unga’s hasn’t yet.
Now the question has to be how do you get the Crusaders version of Mo’unga with the All Blacks?
With the Crusaders, he is unstoppable. If you could duplicate players, the 2021 Crusaders with Scott Robertson would probably beat the 2020 All Blacks under Ian Foster.
The Mo’unga wearing red and black would outshine the one just wearing black on the other side.
One side has the chemistry, the system, the parts that fit, the shared understanding, a collective power bound by experience, the intangibles all meshed together perfectly while the other doesn’t have all those ingredients and is a work-in-progress.
In trying to merge the best of the Kiwi teams under a new coach and system, the 2020 All Blacks had chemistry issues that played out on-field with clunky periods of play marred by poor execution.
It was a lumpy season. Wins over the Wallabies were followed up by two ugly games against the Pumas and a tight loss to Australia in Brisbane. The loss in Sydney to the Pumas and the 38-0 win in Newcastle were a long way from finding the kind of chemistry of past All Black sides.
It didn’t help that their style became robotic and one-dimensional, evolving as the season went on toward being a power-driven team that wanted to carry over the opposition.
The variation was to ramp up attacking kicks which, when they didn’t work, handed over possession.
As a result, counter-attacking All Blacks rugby withered away. Free-flowing attack with offloading was not present. Passages of outstanding phase play were rare.
There were other factors in 2020 that also contributed to the decline of attacking rugby outside of the team’s control. The refereeing of the ruck did contribute.
Never before were sides penalised as much while in possession of the ball, with around 50 percent of all penalties conceded coming while on attack. It created a disincentive to keep the ball, stopped possession sides from getting flow, and aided defences by slowing the game down with less ball-in-play time.
All of this conspired to produce an All Blacks team that de-emphasised passing in contact and playing off unstructured situations like no other before them.
This isn’t the foundation or strategy that is going to produce the best of Mo’unga at the international level. They have to embrace what he can do and how he plays in the entirety.
He now has such a level of freedom at the Crusaders, he can free-wheel, dance around, run and play off instinct whenever he sees fit. Sevu Reece and Will Jordan’s roles have expanded this year, become floating parts ready to take over proceedings to enable Mo’unga to do this.
Four of the Crusaders backs were in the top 10 for offloads in this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa. Mo’unga was number one on that list last year and third this year. They want to keep the ball alive.
The Crusaders’ collective level of catch-pass skills enables a high-tempo attack that can go sideline to sideline, something an All Black squad possibly can’t match. You need forwards that can ball-play, and edge forwards who can draw and pass out wide to fit this system.
All of the Crusaders game uses what Mo’unga has to offer in an effort to maximise his attacking abilities.
If he is to reproduce this standard of play at international level, much has to change in the way the All Blacks play. The personnel also must change, and the style.
They made a half-step towards this in 2020, by ditching the World Cup pattern in favour of more pods for Mo’unga to play behind, but there is much more to it than that.
At a minimum it is a philosophical return to skill-based free-flowing rugby, using combinations that have the most chemistry, and a desire to play fast expansive attacking rugby, which was absent last year with the All Blacks.
It probably means no Beauden Barrett, at least not in the starting side. They still tried to use Barrett as a de-facto 10 at fullback last year, which meant load-sharing touches and cramping each other over who is running the show.
It means selecting forwards that suit the way Mo’unga is used to playing and adopting game plans to match, most of which would be from the Crusader playbook, you would think, with the selection of more Crusaders players.
If this is indeed New Zealand’s best-ever Super Rugby player, the All Blacks simply have to find a better way to use him.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass