Are the Crusaders finally vulnerable? Don't count on it

Coleman: 'I'm sick to death of reading negative headlines about rugby' (2:06)

Following a tumultuous end to the 2023 year for rugby in Australia, Waratahs coach Darren Coleman is focused on bring entertaining play back to the game. (2:06)

Revered and resented, the Crusaders are one of the most successful teams in modern sport. This season, though, they face the greatest test of their Super Rugby dominance.

Super Rugby could be accused of being predictable. Australian teams, other than the Brumbies, have offered minimal resistance against their Kiwi adversaries in recent years to promote a sense of cross-border apathy. And with seven titles in as many years, the Crusaders' continuous success further fuels claims of sameness.

Love or loathe their dominance, there is no denying the Crusaders standard-bearer status.

The last two years the Crusaders entrenched their pedigree by overcoming adversity to claim the crown the hard way - defeating the Blues and Chiefs, the two form regular season teams, away from home in the finale.

While their route differed, the result remained the same. That familiar theme breeds envy among rivals.

Now, though, change is in the air. Hope springs eternal for those beyond red and black country, as the third Super Rugby Pacific edition approaches next week.

Scott Robertson, the unique, theme-inspiring, break-dancing coach, has elevated from unrivalled Super Rugby mentor to lead the All Blacks. Scott Hansen, Robertson's second in command and highly valued details man, joins him to leave the Crusaders without their two most influential coaches.

Richie Mo'unga, arguably the greatest Super Rugby player in history, resides in Japan for the next three years to spark intense interest on who will attempt to fill his void for the Crusaders and All Blacks.

All Blacks centurion Sam Whitelock, the man of the match after returning early from an Achillies injury in last year's Super Rugby final victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton, Jack Goodhue and the destructive Leicester Fainga'anuku have departed to France.

All of which conspires to suggest the Crusaders could, maybe, be vulnerable. Blasphemy? Perhaps. Yet such an assertion certainly seems more apt than any time in Robertson's reign.

Rob Penney assumes the daunting task of stepping onto Robertson's throne with former All Blacks openside Matt Todd, relatively new to the coaching scene, completing the new-look crew.

It would be wrong to judge Penney exclusively on his underwhelming Waratahs tenure. He should be much more comfortable returning home. But no matter the context, a region accustomed to sustained success isn't about to lower expectations. After all, it's not as if the Crusaders are completely shorn of talent. Far from it.

For all their notable exits it's telling the defending champions once again start favourites with local bookies. Given their proven track record any other scenario would leave odds makers too exposed.

While the Crusaders have sizable holes to fill there's ample All Blacks, established fringe test prospects and emerging talent to counter predictions of an immediate decline.

Consider the forward pack.

Codie Taylor will sit out the majority of the regular season on All Blacks leave, but with Scott Barrett leading the way, All Blacks props Tamaiti Williams, Joe Moody, Fletcher Newell anchoring the front row, Ethan Blackadder and Cullen Grace powering the loose forwards and young guns Zac Gallagher and Dominic Gardner enhancing their cause, the Crusaders should compete with anyone where it matters most.

In the backline powerhouse midfielder Levi Aumua - snaffled from Moana Pasifika - is an early candidate for recruit of the season. And with David Havili, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Maca Springer and Noah Hotham, a 20-year-old star-in-the-making at halfback, the Crusaders are not short of weaponry.

The burning question is who will run the cutter in Mo'unga's absence. Fergus Burke is the answer for the business end of the season but he will miss the first two months through injury. That leaves rookies Rivez Reihana and Taha Kemara to likely duke it out for the starting playmaker role.

Barrett witnessed enough from afar on the Crusaders two-match preseason tour, where they narrowly lost to Munster and defeated Bristol, to believe the unproven duo will stand up.

"Taha and Rivez they've shared time in the 10 jersey on the UK tour and with Richie not being there there's a small void to fill," Barrett said. "They'll be excited about that opportunity and the prospect of leading the team. They're lucky to have experience either side of them with David Havili and Willi Heinz and Mitch Drummond there. They're in a good spot.

"Those games probably serve better than a local preseason derby with both those teams being in the middle of the season and it being winter up there, that's what it's like come finals time here. For a young group to go up there and get tested on a different stage it's a good foundation for us. Talking to some of the guys there's been a lot they've taken away from that tour."

There is no better way to open this season than a rematch of last year's final.

On the surface much has changed for the Crusaders since they edged the Chiefs in Hamilton. This is a distinctly new era.

While there's no replacing the charismatic Robertson or Mo'unga's class, Barrett projects typically understated confidence the hallmarks of the Crusaders dynasty aren't about to crumble overnight.

With their first three games on the road, we'll soon know where these Crusaders stand. Missing Jordan, Havili and Blackadder through injury for at least the opening match won't help their cause.

"There's a good balance of youth and experience, the likes of Owen Franks and Ryan Crotty who are back and a few younger guys who haven't played many games at all. With the change of coach it's a good recipe for a fresh environment and the challenge of a title this year," Barrett said.

"The expectations within the group are still really high. The core group strives to get better. That's a key focus this year, knowing what you're good at and how you want to play the game, doubling down on your strengths and adding innovations. That naturally comes with a few new coaches stepping in and adding their twist on things."

Denying the Crusaders another championship would please the masses baying for change but if this franchise has taught us anything, it is to never underestimate their credentials.