Super Rugby Pacific: Winless Crusaders have backs against wall with three tough derbies looming

Coach Rob Penney is not shying away from the task now facing his embattled Crusaders, unwittingly evoking memories of his championship-winning predecessor, as they attempt to right their Super Rugby Pacific.

After winning a Super Rugby crown in each of the past seven years - a run interrupted only by the Blues' trans-Tasman success in 2021 - the Christchurch-based juggernaut has lurked out of the starting gate for 2024, losing their opening three games to the Chiefs, NSW Waratahs and Fijian Drua.

They currently sit ahead of only Western Force - on points differential - at the bottom of the competition table, with a daunting series of NZ derbies against the Hurricanes, Blues and Chiefs again in their next three fixtures.

Crusaders melt in the heat of Lautoka against Fijian Drua.
Crusaders melt in the heat of Lautoka against Fijian Drua. Photo credit: Getty Images

"The mood is really, really positive," insisted Penney. "0-3 is not pretty and there are some pretty disappointing images in that 0-3, but there are some really positive ones as well.

"We're looking forward to being back at home. It's been quite a tough travel programme we've had, but that's part of the comp and it's no excuse.

"We feel as though we're not far away. If you look back on the games we've had, there were a couple of points in it against the Chiefs... had we closed out a bit better, we could have got a result.

"Waratahs, we were big moments of mess integrated with some really good play and some good fight. Drua was unique... we had the boys in the changing room, almost half a dozen moments away from needing ambulances, with the difficulty you face up there with a 1pm kickoff.

"There are a lot of things that can tip the balance in our favour and we're aware of that. The boys are proud men and we're determined to put on a great performance."

As well as losing coach Scott Robertson and assistant Scott Hansen to the All Blacks staff, the Crusaders have taken the field this season without veteran lock Sam Whitelock, star first-five Richie Mo'unga (overseas contracts), hooker Codie Taylor (sabbatical) and fullback Will Jordan (shoulder injury).

Those key absences have robbed Penney of considerable experience at this level. 

"Nothing's changed," said Penney. "The weight of expectation was there before we kicked off round one against the Chiefs.

"That hasn't changed and long may that continue, because it just keeps you razor sharp - there's a Freudian slip - making sure every little detail is taken care of, because it's so important to so many people.

'Razor' is Robertson's commonly used nickname.

"It's really important to us, but also we don't want to be jumping at shadows and searching for things that aren't there. We've just got to be really mindful that we historically have really good processes, we have to trust them, educate, step up, build confidence and sometimes you need to dig into the resilience well, and that's where we're headed right now."

Join Newshub at 7pm Friday for live updates of the Crusaders v Hurricanes Super Rugby Pacific clash