30 May

Farewell to a Stalwart
by Tracey Nelson
30 May 2008

BledisloeHe’s been called the Invisible Man by some blinkered scribes, but Reuben Thorne will depart the Crusaders this weekend as New Zealand’s most capped player for a single franchise. He has appeared in a total of 128 games, including all eight of the Crusaders’ Super finals. He is also the only Crusader to have played in every title-winning side.

Thorne was Crusaders captain in their unbeaten season in 2002, and as All Black captain won back the Bledisloe Cup in 2003 after a five year drought against Australia. He has clocked up 50 test appearances for his country, alongside being an able servant of Crusaders and Canterbury rugby. Up until this season he had only missed five Super matches in 10 years before missing the first half of the 2007 season due to the All Blacks’ Rugby World Cup conditioning programme.

As a player Thorne has always quietly gone about his role as a blindside flanker, and possibly it has been because of his natural humility both on and off the field that his deeds have, for the most part, gone unsung. Unsung outside of his team, but certainly not from within. His workrate as the ever-present back up man in the loose has been instrumental in the Crusaders’ success over the last decade. Acknowledged for his lineout abilities, his support play and defensive role has often been overlooked due to his non-flashy approach to play. The fact that three successive All Black coaches picked Thorne in their teams is probably recognition enough for what he brought to the game.

Having been part of the Crusaders for a decade, he has a pretty good insight as to what makes his team so good. “The guys who started in 1996 learnt a lot and laid foundations for what we have today. It’s been passed along through the team. I learnt a lot from those guys, and hopefully I”m trying to pass that on to the guys who are coming through now”.

It sits naturally with a player like Thorne that he has taken on a mentoring role in his latter years at the franchise, keeping faith with the Crusaders legacy. Heir apparent in the blindside role, Kieran Read, backs that up, saying “He’s been a great servant of Crusaders and Canterbury rugby and he’s got so much knowledge. He’s a great man and helps you out as much as he can”.

As for having been a Crusader for ten years, Thorne’s thoughts are “I’ve enjoyed it the whole way through. When you’re enjoying something you tend to stick around and you just want more and more of it. That’s what happened to me and it’s been great fun”.

Always humble, he is quick to attribute his record number of appearances to his team mates. “It’s nice. I guess it’s just a product of our success. We’ve played more games as a team and I’ve been lucky to be part of it”. When asked about how much he would like to leave on a winning note this Saturday night, Thorne played down the emotional side of things saying “It would be an amazing way to finish. Just the occasion itself (being a final) is going to take all our attention. Maybe after the final whistle there will be time to reflect on it and suck it up one last time”.

Certainly if the rugby gods are looking down on Christchurch this weekend they couldn’t help but smile down on player who has quietly and calmly achieved an illustrious career over the years, and is held in such esteem by his team mates that they coined a song formed only of his name to celebrate winning Super titles. So what does the man think of that? “It’s embarrassing – but it’s nice in a way, and it would be great to hear it one last time”.

I couldn’t agree more.

30 May

The Last Crusade
by Tracey Nelson
30 May 2008

As the 2008 Super 14 Final draws nigh, it’s hard to believe there could be a more fitting farewell for one of Canterbury’s greatest sons than to see his team leave the field the victors. History certainly points to that as being the likely outcome, but this is one coach who will tell you that nothing is ever a certainty and he is not thinking beyond Saturday night yet.

Robbie Deans. He’s the most successful coach in the history of Super rugby, having won four titles from six finals appearances. In his tenure of nine years with the Crusaders franchise, his side has only once missed making the semi finals, and has only lost one of those eight semi final games – notably in 2007 when the Crusaders were minus eight of their All Blacks for the first half of the competition. Now he stands poised to coach the Crusaders to their seventh title as they take on the Waratahs in the 2008 Super 14 semi final in Christchurch this weekend.

There is no doubt that his departure at the end of this Super 14 campaign will mark the closure of possibly the greatest coaching stint professional rugby will ever see. But it is the measure of Deans not only as a coach but perhaps the living personification of Crusaders rugby, that he can walk away knowing that the success he has brought to his franchise will continue. "I’ve always wanted to leave the place in good shape, and there’s no doubt I’ll be doing that" he said this week. "From a playing perspective they’re good to go, they’ve got depth and real capability. Also from a management perspective, the next generation of coaches are good to go."

While Deans’ efforts have mostly been measured by his on-field success, the systems he has installed off the field will be his lasting legacy. Andrew Sullivan, analyst for the Crusaders who is also departing the franchise after seven years to join Deans with the Wallabies, commented "From a staff point of view the biggest asset he has is empowerment. He trusts you. He gives you a task knowing you’re capable of doing it. He doesn’t care how you do it, as long as you do it. He’ll back you 100%". Crusaders media manager Matt McIlraith (also joining Deans in Australia) added "Getting to the semis in 2007 minus the All Blacks was a huge achievement and would be right up there with Finals wins. Achieving when adversity is at it’s greatest is a mark of his success".

One of Deans’ greatest skills has been the ability to surround himself with good people, and his recruitment of players from outside of the franchise area backs this up. All have seamlessly integrated into the Crusaders culture and environment, and when those involved talk about it being a family environment, they actually mean it. Deans’ wife Penny has also had an important role in welcoming player’s families into the Crusaders camp and ensuring that they are included and made to feel part of things. There is a long and distinguished list of players who have come into the Crusaders and flourished, names like Norm Maxwell, Norm Berryman, Ron Cribb and Brad Thorn (who is back for a second bite at the apple this season) to name just a few. All would agree that under Deans they have grown and flourished as players.

Reuben Thorne, who will also depart the Crusaders this weekend after 10 years with the franchise, spoke about the environment Deans has created. "We’ve always prided ourselves on being a true team, not just a talented group of individuals. We try and push that mentality the whole way through and think of the other guys beside us and not just ourselves".

Rookie wing Kade Poki, when asked at training this week, responded with "Awesome. He’s an awesome coach. Always positive, if you’re feeling low on confidence he always gives you confidence, puts it back in you. I’m more confident now than at the start of the season. I’ve grown and become a better player and better person". And that kind of comment is echoed by management. "Robbie gives players confidence not just through them doing stuff on the field, but being part of things off it".

Poki further summed up that up by explaining how nervous he was when he was first called up to the Crusaders this season, especially at the thought of playing alongside top All Blacks such as Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. "But they were all welcoming and made me feel like part of the team. They don’t exclude the young guys or anything. It’s awesome down here".

Going into the final minus your first choice hooker would be seen as a potential weakness for most sides. But the ability of the Crusaders to not only have a more than able replacement in Ti’i Paulo, but to be able bring in wider training group member Steve Fualau onto the bench with the knowledge he knows all the systems and calls is just yet another reminder of the thorough preparation that has become the hallmark of Crusaders rugby. There is always an able back up, keen competition for playing spots, and the unspoken sense that regardless of who pulls on the jersey they will know exactly what to do and when to do it.

So as the curtain falls on Robbie Deans’ reign as Crusaders coach, he leaves behind not only a proud record on the field, but a wealth of experience and stability, plus a base of young talent coming through. The last word goes to him, when I asked how he felt on the eve of his departure. "I’m confident that I can look back with a lot of satisfaction. Satisfaction because I can see it carrying on and continuing to thrive. And that will be great".

30 May

Crusaders vs. Waratahs
by WAJ
30 May 2008

This should be a cracker, can’t wait to sit down with a frothy or two for this one. Clearly the two best teams of this years S14, both with minimal injury problems, and both going into the game after dominant wins in the semi’s.

Two big forward packs that match up well all through the 8 – the Crusaders may edge the scrums, but the Waratahs have a superb lineout – and the loose forwards, I reckon Read may well give the Crusaders the edge here as well with his nose never far away from the ball and he compliments McCaw to a T. The backs not so even with the Crusaders having the edge at centre, where Laulala needs to use his size and strength against the rookie Horne and at fullback where Macca remains one of the great Soopa performers.

And then there are the two major obstacles for the Waratahs to get over, Lancaster Park/Jade/AMI Stadium and Dan Carter. The last, and only time, the Waratahs have won at LPJA was Round 1 2004, funnily enough Ewen McKenzie’s first game as coach, would he like to book-end or what!?

And while we are on McKenzie how bizarre is the trend in Australia to replace coaches mid-season, and in McKenzies case even before the season was halfway through. Quite astonishing.

From this point of view it would be great if the Waratahs won and Link could walk around the NSWRU with his middle finger permanently raised for the next week. Since the early season loss to the Crusaders he has done a great job recasting the backline and bringing a lot more consistency to the forward pack and so turned around the innate conservatism that they were want to play with.

And what about the colossus that is Dan Carter. He has had a couple of weeks now to shake the rust out after his long injury break, and showed last week how well he can run a game with his kicking out of hand superb.

His duel with Beale a true master v apprentice match up. The biggest difference between the two, and what could ultimately decide the game, is their goalkicking. Carter will kick at 80% plus, he has been spot on since his return. Beale is a different story and was woeful last week, 2 out of 6, and that in a semi-final. Will the pressure of a final affect him even more?

And last, but not least, what will Deans have spotted in the Waratahs make-up where he can attack and surprise. Watch for it – there will be some facet of play that will scream Deans.

Crusaders 1 – 12

27 May

All Blacks Wider Training Squad Named
by Tracey Nelson
27 May 2008

The All Black selectors have named a 25 man wider training squad to assemble today in Auckland. There are eleven new faces to this level, notably in the locks, loose forwards, midfield and three quarters.

The players willbe requiredto pass a fitness test this morning before taking part in this week’s training at Waitakere Stadium. The wider training squad does not include any Crusaders players, who are currently preparing for the Super 14 Final this weekend.

The squad is notable for the omission of RWC squad members Nick Evans, who is leaving New Zealand at the end of this year to take up an overseas contract, Chris Masoe and Isaia Toeava. All Black coach Graeme Henry also commented on Radio Sport this morning that had Jerry Collins still been available for selection he would not have made the squad on current form. Henry had spoken to Collins two weeks ago when he returned to playing from injury, and had made it clear that there was pressure coming from other players for the blindside position.

‘ I talked to him two weeks ago and said that it was a very competitive position and other guys were playing better than he was playing at the time’. Henry added that they watched Collins play the last round robin game against the Blues and in the semi final against the Crusaders and ‘things didn’t change a great deal in that respect ,and he was battling to make the side’. Collins confirmed yesterday that the NZRU were allowing him to end his contract early and he was retiring from playing rugby in New Zealand. He added that at this stage was ‘unemployed’, although rumours are rife that he will strike a deal with Bath in the coming months.

The 25 man training squad is:

Andrew Hore
Keven Mealamu
Tony Woodcock
Neemia Tialata
John Afoa
John Schwalger
Kevin O’Neill
Tom Donnelly
Anthony Boric
Adam Thompson
Sione Lauaki
Jerome Kaino
Daniel Braid
Rodney So’oialo
Brendon Leonard
Jimmy Cowan
Stephen Donald
Ma’a Nonu
Richard Kahui
Conrad Smith
Sitiveni Sivivatu
Anthony Tuitavake
Rudy Wulf
Mils Muliaina
Paul Williams

27 May

All Blacks Wider Training Squad Named
by Tracey Nelson
27 May 2008

The All Black selectors have named a 25 man wider training group in the lead up to the Iveco series against Ireland and England starting on June 7th. There are eleven new faces to this level, notably in the locks, loose forwards and three quarters.

Thesquad will assemble today in Auckland although players will have to pass a fitness test this morning before taking part in this week’s training at Waitakere Stadium. The wider training squad does not include any Crusaders players, who are currently preparing for the Super 14 Final this weekend.

The squad is notable for the omission of RWC squad members Nick Evans, who is leaving NZ at the end of this year to take up an overseas contract, Chris Masoe and Isaia Toeava. All Black coach Graeme Henry also commented on Radio Sport this morning that had Jerry Collins still been available for selection he would not have made the squad on current form.

Henry had spoken to Collins two weeks ago when he returned to playing from injury, and had made it clear that there was pressure coming from other players for the blindside position. " I talked to him two weeks ago and said that it was a very competitive position and other guys were playing better than he was playing at the time". Henry added that they watched Collins play the last round robin game against the Blues and in the semi final against the Crusaders and "things didn’t change a great deal in that respect ,and he was battling to make the side". Collins confirmed yesterday that the NZRU were allowing him to end his contract early and he was retiring from playing rugby in New Zealand. He added that at this stage was "unemployed", although rumours are rife that he will strike a deal with Bath in the coming months.

The 25 man training squad is:

Andrew Hore
Keven Mealamu
Tony Woodcock
Neemia Tialata
John Afoa
John Schwalger
Kevin O’Neill
Tom Donnelly
Anthony Boric
Adam Thompson
Sione Lauaki
Jerome Kaino
Daniel Braid
Rodney So’oialo
Brendon Leonard
Jimmy Cowan
Stephen Donald
Ma’a Nonu
Richard Kahui
Conrad Smith
Sitiveni Sivivatu
Anthony Tuitavake
Rudy Wulf
Mils Muliaina
Paul Williams

23 May

Quick Facts for the Super 14 Semi Finals
by Tracey Nelson
23 May 2008

So how do the teams for the two Super 14 semi finals stack up? Read on to find out the stats on the four semi finalists.

In the history of the Super competition, only four teams finishing 3rd or 4th on the table have won their semi final. They were the Sharks (or Natal as they were called then) who were 4th in 1996, the Highlanders (3rd) and Crusaders (4th) in 1999, and the Brumbies (3rd) in 2002.

CRUSADERS v HURRICANES (Christchurch, New Zealand)

Over the history of the Super competition these two teams have played 16 times, with the Crusaders ahead on the ledger 12 to 3 (they drew in pool play in 1999).

They have met twice in the semi finals (2003 and 2005) and both times the Crusaders have won by 20+ points.

The Crusaders have appeared in 9 semi finals. They have won all 7 of their home semi finals, and only lost one away semi final (last year against the Bulls).

The Hurricanes have appeared in 4 semi finals but have only won once, against the Waratahs in 2006. They have never won an away semi final.

The Crusaders beat the Hurricanes in Wellington by 20-13 in Week 7 this year.

The last time the Hurricanes beat the Crusaders was Wellington 2004. They have only once beaten the Crusaders in Christchurch, and that was in 2001.

Both teams go into this semi final on the back of a loss in their last round robin game.

Referee: Stuart Dickinson, Australia
Assistant Referees: Paul Marks, Matt Goddard (both Australia)

WARATAHS v SHARKS (Sydney, Australia)

These two teams have played 13 times, with the Waratahs ahead 7 wins to 5. They had one draw in 1999.

The Sharks have only beaten the Waratahs in Sydney twice – in 1996 and 2000.

The Waratahs have appeared in 3 semi finals but have only made the final once (in 2005, where they lost to the Crusaders in Christchurch).

The Sharks are the most succesful SA side having played in 5 semi finals and 3 finals. Of the 3 away semi finals they have played in, they have won once (against the Reds in 1996).

The Waratahs have not lost a home game in 2008, and beat the Sharks in Sydney by 25-10 in Week 11.

The Waratahs and Sharks have never met before in a semi final.

Both teams go into this semi final on the back of a win in their last round robin game.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence, New Zealand
Assistant Referees: Lyndon Bray, Kelvin Deaker (both New Zealand)

16 May

There’s no loyalty anymore…
by Tracey Nelson
16 May 2008

AB_FansThere’s no loyalty in the game anymore, it’s all about the money, where’s the committment to the jersey and province… and so the cries have continued. I agree, there is no loyalty – but I’m not talking about the players. If the public reckon the players have no loyalty then they should look no further than themselves.

Maybe things would have been different if we’d won the Rugby World Cup and returned to New Zealand as champions. Perhaps if the whole coaching reappointment fiasco had appeared less of a token gesture and the World Cup Review had been completed earlier than it eventually was made public, then maybe the fans would be turning up for the Super 14. But then isn’t that what being a fan is about? Sticking by your team through thick and thin, the good times and the bad? Or are New Zealanders truly just fair weather fans?

I’ve been constantly amazed at the number of rugby fans complaining about players looking at options off-shore, when I have no doubt that if they were offered a comparable deal at the same stage of their life we wouldn’t see them for dust. Rugby is a career for these young men, and there are very few top professionals in this country who haven’t had stint working in an overseas office either as a work secondment, or doing a PhD or post-doctoral fellowship at a prestigous overseas university, or simply looking to get experience in a major global accounting/law/finance company.

The big OE is almost a rite of passage for Kiwis, yet somehow it’s not ok for our top players to want to do it as well? The beauty of working in the UK (other than earning British pounds) is that in not much more of an hour you can be in Paris, Rome, Budapest, Madrid, Casablanca and other endless destinations without running the risk of deep vein thrombosis in the process of getting there. The shorter lengths of time spent travelling and beingaway from home and family is also another carrot a northern rugby stint offers.

Add to that the huge popularity of the game in the UK at present, the ability to play in just one team under one coach, the chance to live somewhere other than New Zealand for a while, and suddenly it’s not just the money that looks good. Meanwhile, back here at the coalface, our top players are currently playing in half empty stadiums infront of crowds still whining about the World Cup quarter final loss last year, with the prospect of having to play an internal domestic trio of test matches against Ireland and England, then the same-old Tri-Nations series (the only spice being whether it will or won’t be played under the ELVs), before returning to the third set of coaches for the Air New Zealand Cup. At the end of all that they get to pack their bags for the end of year tour, complete with yet another test match thrown in enroute to the UK in Hong Kong. Am I the only one who can see which choice is the no-brainer?

To those of you who decrie the players for not wanting to wear the Black jersey, can I ask you to stop and think for moment and tell me just what is in it for the likes of Daniel Carter and Jerry Collins to hang around for at the moment? Players of their class and pedigree have played and won the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup series for the last few years. They beat the Lions 3-0 in 2005. They’ve completed a Grand Slam tour of the UK. The World Cup fell over for them and their next chance isn’t until 2011. Just what is there for them to aim at, to strive for, in the next two years under the same set of coaches? Another Super 14 in yet another half-empty NZ stadium? Another Tri-Nations series where we can’t sell out the stadiums? Because this isn’t about our failure in Cardiff, this rot amongst the fans started even before the reconditioning programme.

Where is your loyalty to the Black jersey? Where are you when there’s a test match? How many of you sniff and say ‘nah, it’s just England’ (though perhaps you need reminding that they made the RWC Final last year) and don’t bother to get tickets to the test to support your team? I can remember not that many years ago when it was virtually impossible to get tickets to an All Black test the day after they went on sale. Is it any wonder the players are starting to feel that life would be better offshore, because at least they will be playing infront of packed stadiums full of team supporters.

How many people can say they’ve had the same job for 10 years since they left school? Most of us would consider someone mad if they were being head-hunted by a top UK firm offering them more money and more life opportunities doing the same job but with slightly less public limelight associated with it, and they turned it down. Life is about keeping yourself challenged and interested in what you are doing. As soon as you are no longer challenged and simply coasting, it’s time to move on. Equally, if you no longer enjoy what you’re doing you should also go. For the life of me I cannot see what there is left to challenge and interest the likes of the Carters and Collins, and I doubt they’re getting much enjoyment from their fans at the moment either so I have no problem with them wanting to experience a bit more from life. You’re only young once, and life is far too short to have regrets. Heaven forbid that they end up bitter and twisted like the many legions of so-called New Zealand rugby supporters out there.