mark hammettMark Hammett (right) chuckles when he thinks back to the Crusade’s first days.

The former All Black hooker, former Crusader coaching staff at the seven time Super rugby champions, was a player on the team’s first ever tour; a pre-season visit to South Africa in 1996 prior to the start of the Super 12.

“We were reading the match programme before our first game up in Pretoria against Northern Transvaal,” Hammett recalls.

“When we looked at the sizes that were given for their front rowers, they were all about 130 kilograms, which was about 20-30 kilograms heavier than we were!”

In many ways, Hammett believes the physical difference in size between the New Zealanders and their South African counterparts, summed up the Crusaders’ shortcomings in their first season, where they finished the Super 12 in last place.

“It was like boys being pitted up against men,” Hammett says.

“All of the New Zealand teams were subject to fitness testing prior to the competition, and it turned out that we were the fittest of the five New Zealand teams, but we didn’t have the experience and ring craft of the other sides. Also, because many of us didn’t have the fitness base that we’d needed prior to doing all of our training over the summer before that season; we ended up having a lot more injuries than most of the other teams.”

Such was the Crusaders’ injury toll during their first year; the team had to call on eight extra players from outside of their original squad.

todd-blackadderIf the experience of winning just two of their 11 matches, with another one drawn, was a bitter pill to swallow, former skipper and now Head Coach Todd Blackadder (right) says they quickly learned the lessons of that failed campaign.

“We probably did just about everything wrong that first year, but professional rugby was new to us all, so it was very much a case of trial and error,” Blackadder says.

“The disappointment of that season has served the Crusaders well in the long term, both for the players involved and the generation that have followed. It was very tough to deal with at the time because our failure wasn’t through any lack of trying – if anything, we were probably all trying too hard; but the scars of that experience went deep, and have become engrained in the whole franchise establishment.”

Blackadder says, because of what happened in 1996, nobody at the Crusaders ever gets ahead of themselves, no matter whom the opposition is that they are playing on any given weekend, or where they lie on the table.

Hammett, who featured in all 10 seasons of the Super 12 competition as a player before becoming the team’s Assistant Coach, concurs.

“We’ve never been about talking ourselves up,” he says.

“It’s hard to do now, given the success the Crusaders have had, but we actually thrive on being the underdogs. We’re happy enough to have the media talking about the other side because that lets us get on with our preparations away from all of the hype. We all believe in each other and will work hard for each other. That’s the main thing.”

The Crusaders’ collective belief helped the side win the first three of their seven Super rugby finals away from home, but Hammett says the preparation and attention to detail that is now involved in their match preparation has advanced significantly compared to how the team prepared in 1996.

“It’s never mattered who we are playing. We don’t tend to focus that much on the opposition, other than assessing their strengths and potential weaknesses, and working out ways to counter them,” Hammett says.

“It is more about ourselves, both as a team collectively, and every player individually. It is what every individual does at any given moment that counts. That is what wins and loses games.”

Even so, the Crusaders can never be accused of being under-prepared, or of showing their opposition less than total respect.

The coaching team start preparation for each match by taking the team through a video-based review of the team’s previous performance, which is then followed by a tactical planning session.

This session is designed to make the players aware, both of the potential threats their upcoming opponents pose, but also of the attacking opportunities the Crusaders’ extensive video analysis of their next opponents has provided.

As preparation time is at a minimum once the competition begins, the Crusaders generally run only three times together as a full team in the build up to matches, with the last run being a short workout totally focused on running through the moves and strategies the team will carry out the following day.

The Crusaders’ training sessions during match weeks are devoted mainly to fine tuning the team game, as it is tailored towards each individual opponent.

There is also some physical maintenance thrown in, in the form of weights, skills and speed sessions for the players.

The Crusaders’ skills sessions are particularly inventive, with games like kicking tennis, which the players play two against two, using a rugby ball, designed to sharpen specific skills.

Unsurprisingly, the team’s regular kickers like fullback Leon MacDonald, flyhalf Dan Carter are amongst the best performed at the rugby version of tennis.

The Crusaders also spend four half hour sessions on each of their training days broken up into working parties to focus on their individual on-field units; such as the scrum, lineout and backline attack.

Player input is an important part of the whole process, as is player accountability if things don’t go well. The level of player input is greater than it used to be.

The Crusaders’ success has been built on developing a solid core of senior players, almost all of whom have graduated through to the All Blacks. These players provide the on-field leadership for the rest of the group.

As an example, the rise of All Black flanker Richie McCaw to the Crusaders captaincy, taking over from former All Black skipper Reuben Thorne, who is his turn had been groomed under the tutelage of another former national skipper in Blackadder.

The positive impact of the Crusaders’ development system is not just illustrated by their succession planning for the team captaincy.

Such has been the player turnover; the inaugural Super 14 champion outfit of 2006 featured just Thorne from the first champion Crusaders side of 1998.

Even more astonishingly, just 10 members of the 28 man squad who featured in the 2002 competition, where the Crusaders became the only side in Super rugby history to go through a season winning all 13 matches, remained part of the cast.

Yet, despite that large change in playing personnel, the Crusaders have been able to remain consistently successful.

Since the 2002 final, the Crusaders have featured in five of the last six Super rugby finals, while winning the title in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

One of the reasons for the on-going Crusaders dynasty is an astute recruitment programme.

Players such as Tony Marsh (France), Ron Cribb and Bradley Mika (both All Blacks) have gone on to international rugby after leaving their home bases to try their hand with the Crusaders.

In 2005, (then coach) Robbie Deans hit the jackpot again with his talent spotting by snapping up the services of Rico Gear, who went on to make the All Blacks after a stellar Super 12 where he topped the try-scoring charts by touching down 15 times.

Gear, who had spent a season with the Crusaders earlier in his career while also playing for the Highlanders and the Blues, says the off-field organisation at the franchise is a major reason why it has been so successful.

“Everyone is treated equally, all ideas are listened to, and everyone is made to feel that they are having an input into what is going on,” Gear says.

“It wasn’t always like that at some of the other teams I played for. Most of them are pretty good now, but that’s possibly as a result of them learning from what the Crusaders are doing, and trying to replicate the environment within their own teams.”

As successful as the Crusaders have been in the player market, their success has been underpinned by the quality produced by their home grown players.

Ominously for opponents looking to unseat the last Super 12 champions, Thorne says the next generation of players coming out of the franchise’s development system have shown that they have the goods to keep the success flowing.

“Some of the younger guys we have around here now have huge potential,” Thorne says.

“Players seem to be coming into the professional ranks that much younger now than they did in my generation when we started. It’s quite frightening. They might be young now, and relatively unknown on the national and international stage, but I’d say that there are a few guys here that are going to make pretty big names for themselves before they are done with their careers!”

Unlike the major European clubs, which are privately owned consortiums and based around one major population centre, New Zealand’s Super 14 franchises are all centrally owned and run – with the New Zealand Rugby Union the chief contractor.

Alongside the national body, which pays all of the players, New Zealand’s 27 provinces all share a stake in the five teams.

In the Crusaders’ case, there are five smaller provincial unions (Tasman, Mid Canterbury, Buller, West Coast and South Canterbury) that are part of the ownership of the franchise alongside the powerful and more recognisable Canterbury union.

Even when the Crusaders are playing at the smaller home venues, like Nelson and Timaru as they have done in recent years, the whole show moves with the team. This includes the Crusaders horsemen; a popular pre-match innovation.

The routine involves eight horses and riders from the local Christchurch Polo Club, who are dressed up like knights from the medieval times, and do two circuits of the arena before the match, swords raised, with the objective of whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

The horsemen are so popular; they were even transported to Australia to perform before the crowd in Melbourne, when the Crusaders played a pre-season match against Super 14 newcomers, the Western Force.

When the Crusaders visit the regions, the non-playing members of the squad help to promote the match, by being involved in visits to schools, businesses and hospitals throughout the community prior to the game.

Such is the importance of the smaller rural provinces to the Crusaders; Blackadder remembers once telling his players to regard every autograph as if it was a contract between them and their supporters.

“I told the players to see the simple act of signing an autograph as our commitment to the fans that we would do our best as their representatives, and that we fully appreciated their great support.”

The Crusaders have enjoyed a similar off-field culture to that fostered in Canberra by the ACT Brumbies, which shows it is more than just a coincidence that the two organisations enjoyed so much Super 12 success, between them scooping seven of the 10 titles.

In Canberra , the Brumbies players live so close to each other, in apartment style living, that the news media came to call the Pinnacle Apartment complex most of the players live in ‘ Melrose Place’, after the popular American television drama of the late 1990s.

That the Crusaders players are happy in their environment is shown by the amount of time most of them tend to spend together away from the rugby field.