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Crusaders’ latest collapse will increase scrutiny on Penney

Analysis: The Crusaders’ loss to the Reds highlighted their now familiar failings and should put their new head coach in the spotlight, writes Patrick McKendry.

The Crusaders have four games left to pull themselves out of the wreckage of their regular season which took another hit last night via their defeat to the Reds in Christchurch.

The 33-28 loss – their first to the Reds since the 2011 Super Rugby final in Brisbane, and their first at home to an Australian team since 2015 – has kept them in 10th place on the table. Only the Waratahs and Force are below them.

The Crusaders are somehow still on the brink of a playoff spot, an indictment on the overly generous competition format and the inconsistencies of those just above them, including the Highlanders, Drua, and Moana Pasifika.

Rob Penney’s men have only two victories this season and last night’s defeat, watched live by former coach Scott Robertson, contained all of what has been aiming them this season: Ill discipline, a lack of set piece accuracy, half-hearted tackling and a lack of sharpness and authority at first-five.

They were once again hurt by injuries, with returning skipper Scott Barrett, so influential in last weekend’s win over the Rebels, suffering a back problem in the first half and loose forward Ethan Blackadder not taking the field due to an injured thigh. Blackadder, constantly beset by leg injuries, must be wondering if he will ever get through a full season.

But their collapse cannot be blamed on the loss of a few individuals, and what must be concerning of all for Penney and company is how some players have gone backwards this season – including midfielder Dallas McLeod, an All Black last year.

As a team they conceded eight penalties in the opening 16 minutes, gave up two tries close to their line due to ineffective front-on defense – heresy under Robertson – and, just as they clawed their way back to 21-21 halfway through the second half, a charged-down David Havili cleared the Reds another seven-pointer and all the momentum.

Harry Wilson of the Reds makes the inroads into the Crusaders' defense that led to Fraser McReight's early try.

That the experienced Havili, forced into first-five from the midfield after a suggestion from All Blacks coach Robertson made the move more palatable, made the mistake at such a critical stage will do little for his confidence or indeed mood.

Most concerning of all is how the pack, once so formidable in leading the Crusaders to seven straight titles under Robertson, has lost its ability to dominate. And such are their lineout issues, they now struggle to win their own possession.

All told it’s a collapse of monumental proportions, the resilience of the Robertson era when the red and blacks delivered regardless of injury setbacks now conspicuous by its absence.

Chief executive Colin Mansbridge recently suggested it was “childish” for commentators to question whether Penney should finish the entirety of his two-year term at the helm but the on-field issues are so plentiful and damaging that they hint to problems off it.

Backs coach Tamati Ellison, highly rated as an assistant to Robertson, was considered too inexperienced to move up to the top job but there may be individuals on the Crusaders board having second thoughts about that.

The Crusaders’ remaining fixtures are against the Highlanders in Dunedin, Brumbies in Canberra, Blues in Christchurch, and Moana Pasifika in Christchurch.

On this evidence they will struggle to beat the Highlanders, who did well to beat Moana on a sodden pitch in Nuku’alofa, or Moana themselves. They would appear to have little chance against the Blues, a team who possess a harder edge this season, and the Brumbies, who recently beat the Hurricanes.

The Crusaders’ strategic goal is a championship win every season.

It’s doubtful whether they will even make the playoffs and such are their faults it would probably be better for the competition’s integrity if they didn’t.