When you look at the Crusaders, you’ve got to sit there and admire what they’ve done.
If we cast our eyes all the way back to where they started, they finished dead last in their first season before moving up to the middle of the pack in their second. In the third season of Super Rugby they captured their first title, and won the next two iterations as the competition’s first real dynasty. Looking back, we can see that from failure came something pretty amazing.
I was fortunate enough to be down there for one season, and noticed several elements that separate the Crusaders juggernaut from the rest of the competition.
The first thing that stands out with the Crusaders is the culture. Yes, it’s a very broad word, every team has their own culture, some more successful than others. Some are toxic and some are empowering. The Crusaders culture is empowering in a funny sort of way.
They demand you to be yourself and be your own person, but they also demand that you have the ability to be morphed into a Crusader man. Whether you’re there for one season, whether you’re there for life, you become a Crusader man.
That means you do and think the Crusaders way all the time – what’s best for the team, how do I make this team better, how can I help the coaches, how do I enhance this culture, how do I give back to my community?
Little things like that really give you a connection to the team. We look at the Crusaders now and you see all of the young talent coming through. A lot of them were little kids who have been touched by past Crusaders and have grown up with dreams of becoming a Crusader.
When they finally arrive at that point, they embrace the fact that it’s their turn and their selection bears special significance. For other franchises, you find many players who come and go and don’t often originate from the region.
The Crusaders’ key to sustained success is that they’ve got their formula and they don’t stray from it. They’re not picking men solely on talent, they’re picking men primarily on character. I remember when I was faced with the decision of leaving the Blues in 2007. I spoke to Robbie Deans at the Crusaders and I spoke to Ian Foster at the Chiefs.
Robbie Deans turned around and said “Look, I know you Ali. Come if you want to come.” The next thing I did was ring Richie McCaw, and asked him what he thought I should do.
Richie suggested I flip a coin and said that before I looked at the result I would know. Something would tell me. That’s exactly what happened and that’s where I went.
At the Crusaders there’s a huge element of trust that you don’t find in many other places. The staff and the players are on one level, all the way from the baggage man through to the head coach and the CEO. They’re all on the same level with the same collective drive. It’s ingrained in them.
If you’re a new guy that comes down – speaking from my position – you find you are immediately embraced and trusted by those around you. If you’re not your stock-standard human, you’ve got your own special elements to you, the Crusaders want to enhance that. They want those elements to come out because they know if you’re down there you’re committed to the cause.
I think of guys like Mose Tuiali’i, Norm Maxwell, or more recently someone like Bryn Hall. During his tenure with the Blues he spent a lot of time in the shadows and probably struggled a bit, he goes down south and all of a sudden he’s running the operation and has evolved into a true general of the game. Departing Crusaders wing Seta Tamanivalu summed the team up perfectly when he acknowledged the brotherhood the club has and the emphasis on family that he was yet to find before his arrival in Christchurch.
This leads into the area that truly separates the Crusaders; their philosophy in terms of their makeup. Every team has their All Blacks and most teams build around those marquee figures. The Crusaders build around the rest of the crop.
If you look at it, especially now with all of the distractions and interruptions, it’s probably the best way to do it. These guys are constantly in the team. Someone like Matt Todd is the backbone. Someone like Wyatt Crockett, yes, he’s been an All Black but he’s someone who’s just been a Crusader man through and through.
My own time with the Crusaders was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. It was just so easy. You turned up, you trained hard, you got on with each other and left having made lifelong friends. My locking partners, Ross Filipo – I don’t see him very regularly but I always consider him as a genuinely great mate – and Brad Thorn – I think that’s where we started our friendship and relationship. We just understood each other week to week.
Off the park, if you look at the staff the Crusaders have had over time, they are all individuals who are connected with a purpose in life. A desire to be the greatest.
Look at current Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson. Unfortunately, I never played with Razor but he is such a good man, and as a past Crusader you still have a teammate-like connection. He enjoyed life and had a sense of humor that is second to none, and he hasn’t changed as a coach. He’s grown into his role as a coach but hasn’t allowed his professional development to stop him from embracing who he is as a man.
I think that sums up the Crusader way.
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