5 Jun

The Greatest Crusader of Them All?
by Tracey Nelson
5 Jun 2009

In the 13th year of Super Rugby Leon MacDonald became the third most-capped player for the Crusaders. No other 2009 player involved in Super 14 rugby in New Zealand can boast such a lengthy career, having started his Super rugby career in 1997 at the age of 19 he has only missed two seasons with the Crusaders – once in 1998 when he was drafted to the Chiefs, and the other in 2004 when he spent a season with the Yamaha club in Japan. Having completed his 11th Crusade he is once again heading back to Japan to play club rugby.

In a year where the Crusaders were rebuilding, having lost 11 of the players that took them to their 7th Super title in 2008 including the likes of Dan Carter and Scott Hamilton from the backline, the experience of MacDonald was vital in a very young team – many of whom were having their first year of Super rugby. He seems to have a real belief that rubs off on the team, particularly when you have a young team like this year’s Crusaders where belief can take a while to develop. In some cases the players have performed above a certain level just because they’ve had Leon there said assistant coach, Mark Hammett.

The measure of the quiet, unassuming man known as Rangi to his teammates is no better illustrated than the way he stepped up this season to take over the goal kicking duties when the two young 1st 5s in the side, Stephen Brett and Colin Slade, were struggling with their kicking percentages. A load he was happy to assume, despite goal kicking causing him problems with a tight groin. He nailed a last minute penalty from the sideline for the Crusaders to win their match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and calmly dropped a goal against the Blues to win the last round robin game that assured the Crusaders of a place in this year’s semi finals.

Coach Todd Blackadder mused To me he’s our best Crusader, the length of time he’s put into the game, his professionalism to keep performing – he’s still got that enthusiasm about him, he still wants to compete and do well.

Never one to want the limelight, MacDonald epitomized everything that was great about the Crusaders franchise – a franchise that promotes the team ahead of the individual, where everyone is valued, and where there is no room for egos. Hammett summed MacDonald up, saying It’s a bit hard to do him justice in words. It hasn’t just been the last couple of years that he’s been instrumental and inspirational in what he’s achieved here, it’s been right from the start. He’s has had this attitude of how can I improve, where can I communicate, how can I give to the team’. The team always seemed bigger than him as an individual.

While MacDonald has never said much off the field, he has certainly stood out when playing. With an uncanny ability to seemingly find gaps where there were none, his counter-attacking skills from the fullback position were instrumental in the success of the Crusaders over the years and his courage on defence was second to none. But he would also add his efforts elsewhere around the field, as Hammett commented He’s a bit forward-like himself, he likes to get in and clean out and rucks, and run hard close to the rucks. That was something I used to really enjoy when I played in teams with Rangi.

It was in 2000 following the Crusaders’ third Super title that MacDonald was first selected for the All Blacks, and it started a career in the black jersey that spanned eight years and amassed 146 test points. MacDonald also represented New Zealand Maori, and was part of the side when they beat the British Lions 19-13 in 2005, scoring their only try of the game.

MacDonald is the third most capped Crusader with 122 appearances, only Reuben Thorne (129) and Caleb Ralph (126) have numbered more games for the franchise. With a total of 42 tries to his name only Ralph has eclipsed him in the try scoring stakes, while Andrew Mehrtens and Dan Carter are the only two players to have tallied more points overall. Todd Blackadder makes no pretense that they would like him to become the most capped Crusader, I’m hoping it’s not his last game, we’re desperately working hard behind the scenes to get one more Crusade out of him because his experience has just been critical this year. You can’t buy that sort of experience.

I don’t think there’s been anyone more consistent than him, which is why he’s been both a Crusader and an All Black all these years added Hammett, I should hope in time that he should become a very good coach himself, so that’ll be exciting and we’ll watch closely. As will the rest of us, although no doubt fans would love to see MacDonald back for one last Crusade.

Leon MacDonald’s player stats:

Provincial caps: 70 (37 Canterbury, 33 Marlborough)
Provincial debut:1994 v Buller (for Marlborough)
Super caps:127 (122 Crusaders, 5 Chiefs)
Super debut: 1997 (v Hurricanes)
Super points:351 (42 tries, 28 conversions, 27 penalties, 1 drop goal)
Test caps:56
Test points:146 (15 tries, 25 conversions, 7 penalties)
Test debut:2000 (v Scotland)

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