We sat down with former Crusader Tom Sanders as he took us through his journey through rugby, his favourite memories as a Crusader, what he's up to now, and what's on the horizon for him.
1. Can you recap your rugby journey as a player?
My rugby journey began at 5 years old playing for the Banks Peninsula rugby club alongside schoolmates. I played for the club until the under 14 grade and whenever I’m back home I will always go help and support!
Then I started playing for Lincoln High School's first XV, then onto Lincoln University where I was lucky enough to play in some really good teams in the colts and senior sides which gave me enough exposure to sneak into the last NZ under 20 trial in 2014.
The under-20 tournament was a bit of a launch pad and I managed to get named in the Canterbury side for the 2014 season. On the back of that, I was given a wider training contract for the 2015 super season with the Crusaders and had to pinch myself every day heading into rugby park, training alongside so many Crusader legends. It was a steep learning curve personally that year, and with the calibre of players - especially in the loose forwards - I took the opportunity from Dave Rennie to head up to the Chiefs for the 2016/17 seasons to challenge myself and hopefully get some decent game time. I enjoyed my time at the Chiefs but when Razor who coached me at both NZ under 20 and Canterbury had recently got the Crusaders job, he offered me the chance to be a Crusader I couldn't turn it down.
I spent the next four years at the Club and had a tough couple of years in 2018/19 with injuries but managed to stay injury free in 2020 and 2021 which saw me have a bit of a role in those two title-winning campaigns.
Now I have just finished playing my first season in Japan with Suntory and really enjoyed that and I'm looking forward to getting back up there in September for another season.
I loved being a part of the Crusaders franchise full of amazing players and staff, you don't realise how special it is until you leave.
2. Who influenced your rugby career the most and why?
There are probably two big ones.
My Dad got me into footy when I was young and is my number one supporter and helped me out a lot especially when I was younger instilling good habits around training and work ethic.
The other person would have to be Razor. He was the first one to give me a shot with the under 20s, coached me at Canterbury and gave me the opportunity to come back to the Crusaders, as he saw something in me that others didn't and gave me an opportunity.
3. What was your most memorable game for the Crusaders and why?
The most memorable game would have to be the final against the Chiefs in 2021. My daughter Ellie was born Sunday the weekend before so I spent the week heading to the hospital to see my wife Lucy and Ellie each day after training.
Training prep hadn't been ideal with the lack of sleep. I was named on the bench, but in the last 5 min of the warm-up, Sione, who was starting at 7, got knocked out. So I ended up starting and we won, it was definitely a memorable week.
4. How did you find the process of settling into the Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath?
It was my first time in Japan so when I got there so it was a bit of a culture shock for a boy from a small town in Canterbury. But the club and all the players were really welcoming and made settling in easy. Helps that the food is bloody good.
5. Suntory coach Milton Haig has talked about the Japanese competition becoming more physical - how have you found it in comparison to New Zealand rugby? And What was different about the style of rugby in Japan?
Because it has been my first season playing in Japan I can't compare it to what it has been like previously over there, But compared to super rugby I would have to say the main difference in physicality would be the Japanese boys are just a bit smaller. They certainly still rip in and give it heaps, there's just not as much weight behind them. I found that playing for Suntory was very up-tempo, fast pace and ball-in-hand rugby.
6. Any plans for the future?
I have one more year with my current contract at Suntory. We ended up losing in the final this year so it would be nice to go one better and win!
7. What hobbies or interests have you taken up outside rugby?
Hobbies outside of footy are pretty limited in Japan. I play a wee bit of golf and want to do some more travel around Japan, see the country when we have some spare time along with trying to learn some more of the language.