Crusaders’ indelible legacy
It was impossible not to admire the clinical way Todd Blackadder’s Crusaders destroyed the Reds in their Super rugby showdown over the weekend.
After their 38-9 demolition of the Reds, the Crusaders have reached the semi-finals yet again. They haven’t been out of the top four since 2001.
The effect the Crusaders have had on New Zealand rugby since the game went professional has been colossal.
Amazingly, the Crusaders finished last, with just two wins, in the first year of Super rugby, 1996.
But since then, they have won the crown seven times and made 10 finals. Not surprisingly, they have provided a vast array of All Blacks.
It is one thing for a team to enjoy a fantastic season or two, as the Chiefs are now, and as the Blues did in the 1990s, but to keep producing the goods year after year is much more impressive.
Just look at how the formerly mighty Magic netball franchise is falling apart with the departure of coach Noeline Taurua. The Cru- saders have survived changes of coaches and captains, retirements, sabbaticals and injuries, and kept on winning.
Superstars Andrew Mehrtens, Daniel Carter, Justin Marshall and Richie McCaw have claimed many headlines, but I’ve been equally impressed with how goodish players like Reuben Thorne, Caleb Ralph, Leon MacDonald, Daryl Gibson, Aaron Mauger, Scott Robertson, Greg Feek, Mark Hammett and Andrew Ellis have been so much better when wearing Crusaders colours.
The franchise has the ability to squeeze the maximum out of most players – a rare gift.
If we look at the Super rugby landscape, the Blues, Hurricanes and Crusaders have had plenty of talent to call on each season. The Highlanders have had a smaller talent pool and the Chiefs took more than a decade to get some cohesiveness in their campaigns after finally sorting out problems arising from the geography of the franchise.
Why then is the Crusaders’ record so much better than everyone else’s?
Auckland dominated New Zealand rugby from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and provided the base for All Black teams in that period. The Auks brought undoubted ability to the All Blacks, but also a rather distasteful arrogance.
Since then, Canterbury and the Crusaders have been the All Blacks’ engine room, and their players’ honest endeavour has been laudable.
Successive Crusaders coaches Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans and Todd Blackadder and captains Reuben Thorne and McCaw have moulded just the sort of character All Black teams have needed.
One feature of the Crusaders is that when they simply have to win, they can produce the goods.
In 2002 they were so supreme they went through the season unbeaten, the only Super team to manage that feat. But in other years the title race has come down to one critical match, and generally that’s when the Crusaders are at their best.
Look at this season. They began with four losses in seven matches, but have had just one defeat since, to the Chiefs. And they turned that result around when they needed to, with a comprehensive 43-15 win earlier this month.
The Crusaders have timed their run to perfection, and only a wealthy man would bet against them closing out the season triumphantly.
Great leaders: Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder and captain Richie McCaw before the play-off match against the Reds. They have been two of the towering figures of Crusaders rugby.