cs00159The start of the professional era in 1996 found Canterbury rugby at a low ebb.

While the union; New Zealand’s oldest dating back to 1879, was made the home base for the Crusaders Super rugby franchise, incorporating the seven provinces in the top half of the South Island, Canterbury’s was not a positive environment.

This showed through immediately when the Crusaders; boasting just one All Black in the team from the previous year’s tour of Italy and France, finished last in the first Super 12.

“At the end of that first year, we had a good look at everything because it [the Super 12] hadn’t worked for us,” then Crusaders chief, and now NZRU Chief Executive, Steve Tew remembers.

“As a result of that, we rewrote the plan for both the Crusaders and the Canterbury Rugby Union itself and decided to take some risks. The risks involved not only investing in some players from outside of the region, but also in building up the fulltime infrastructure that we felt a professional team would need.”

The move paid off handsomely.

In five years, the Crusaders went from being a largely non-All Black environment, with just one player in the team, to having all but one of the All Blacks, when 14 Crusaders lined up for New Zealand in the starting lineup against Ireland in 2002.

“While we were aggressive in the player recruitment market at the end of 1996, after that, we put most of our energy into developing the talent from within our region,” Tew says,

“But there is no question that, having a number of All Blacks around helped develop the younger players that were coming through, so they could reach their full potential.”

The outside input might have helped initially, but the real drive behind the Crusaders’ dominance of the Super rugby competition came from within.

While professionalism was new to everyone, Canterbury and the Crusaders tapped into the knowledge of former representatives, by getting them involved on the back room staff, to recreate and evolve the values and heritage that had served Canterbury so well in the past.

“The Crusaders are not the same as the Canterbury team, it is a different brand and has a wider support base throughout the South Island, but the team was operating in the Canterbury environment so it had to have a strong Canterbury flavour if it was to be successful,” Tew says.

“That included using Canterbury’s traditional red and black colours, and tapping into the traditions, values and heritage that had built Canterbury rugby up over more than a century of success. You could say that all of those things were loaned to the Crusaders.”

As was the intellectual knowledge, through the likes of 1997-1999 coach Wayne Smith, and his successor Robbie Deans.

While both men had been heroes for the province on the field, most notably during the record equaling Ranfurly Shield reign of 1982-85, the pair have since added significantly to their legacies off it, by delivering between them seven Super rugby titles.

With Deans alongside as manager, Smith regenerated the Crusaders from last in 1996 to sixth a year later, before annexing back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999.

As significant as Smith’s contribution was, the role played by Deans has been even more influential.

The organisation’s most prolific ever point scorer, with 1641 points from 147 matches between 1979 and 1990, Deans made an instant impact as a coach by returning the NPC title to the province for the first time in 14 years in his freshman season as Canterbury coach in 1997.

He then took over coaching the Crusaders in 2000, and followed up Smith’s good work by transforming the side into the almost unstoppable juggernaut we know today.

Under Deans’s stewardship, the Crusaders have only twice failed to make the Super rugby final, winning titles in 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2008, while finishing as runner up in 2003 and 2004.

Other former Canterbury players who have been brought in to the Crusaders environment to inject knowledge and expertise at various times include the current All Black assistant and former Wales coach Steve Hansen; the former Ranfurly Shield winning Canterbury skipper Don Hayes, who has acted as the team’s campaign manager, and the former Canterbury lock Tony Thorpe, who is now the team manager.

Former Crusaders and All Black hooker Mark Hammett continued that tradition by joining the coaching staff, while 1997-2001 skipper Todd Blackadder is now Head Coach.

Other former Canterbury or Crusaders representatives such as Rob Penney, Angus Gardiner and Matt Sexton have also been associated with either the professional arm of the business, or working with the young up and coming players behind the scenes.

“Having so many guys in there who had been part of successful Canterbury teams of the past allowed us to recreate the culture we’d had, so that the current players could benefit,” Hansen says.

“Generally, to be successful, the players need two things: a good team environment where they can excel, and a good work ethic. Drawing on all of our own experiences playing for Canterbury , that’s what we tried to provide.”

The Crusaders’ success has been such that the New Zealand union has sought to replicate it, both by selecting a large number of Canterbury players for the All Blacks, but also by hiring Crusaders staff.

Eleven of the staff who have worked for the Crusaders since 1997 have also been involved in All Black roles, in positions as widely ranging as from the head coach to team manager, fitness trainer, physiotherapist, video analyst and even the team’s baggage man.