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Crusaders set for a change

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Changing identities may change a winning culture - but that's not the point

Some things are bigger than sports.

That certainly seems to be the message that New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew wants to deliver to the country when it comes to the horrific terrorist attack that took place in Christchurch last month.

New Zealand Rugby has acknowledged that the Crusaders name and identity is one that may be considered offensive to members of the wider community, given the associations the name has with some of the atrocities and crimes that were committed during medieval times.

That mass shooting that occurred on 15 March was ostensibly driven by religious and racial bigotry, it was an attack on the Muslim community. Understandably, New Zealand has almost overnight become more sensitive to other aspects of society with prejudicial undertones which have, until this point in time, been somewhat overlooked.

At the Crusaders’ upcoming home match, the normally ever-present sword-wielding horsemen will be absent – a move by management to ensure that nothing considered potentially in bad taste should blight the event.

Tew’s latest comments indicate that this absence could likely become permanent.

“We are asking (research and insights company) Research First to look into two possible options moving forward – retaining the ‘Crusaders’ name but changing the branding and associated imagery; or undertaking a complete rebranding, including the name and all imagery.” Tew confirmed earlier today.

“Maintaining the status quo in terms of the Crusaders name along with the current imagery of knights on horseback is, in our view, no longer tenable because of the association with the religious Crusades that has now been drawn. That is therefore not one of the options that we will be considering.”

Whilst the importance of remaining sensitive to the wider community’s views on the matter cannot be understated, it will be intensely interesting to see how the Crusaders team reacts on the pitch to the latest revelations.

The Crusaders moniker has existed for 23 years now. Although older rugby fans may still identify more with their provincial teams, almost a whole generation of passionate supporters and players have grown up supporting the Crusaders franchise.

On a global level, the Crusaders may well be the most successful non-international rugby team in the world. In 23 years of Super Rugby competitions, the Crusaders have missed out on making the playoffs a mere three times. They’ve won the competition nine times – six more than their next closest rivals, the Blues and the Bulls. The sheer success of the Crusaders can simply not be exaggerated – they are an incredible team shaped by 23 years of history.

Whichever option the Crusaders and New Zealand Rugby boards opt for, we are going to see a huge shakeup at the Crusaders.

It must be made clear here that we’re not simply talking about modifying a team logo, we’re talking about completely changing a team’s identity.

The Crusaders have been built on a culture of success – winning is in their blood. It’s this winning culture combined with an absolute commitment to their brand that makes the Crusaders who they are.

Head to a match at AMI Stadium and you’ll be greeted with the spectacular turrets of a castle jutting out from the corner of the ground, men on horseback charging up and down the sidelines and Vangelis’ ‘Conquest of Paradise’ blasting from the speakers – if there’s one team in New Zealand that absolutely owns their branding, it’s the Crusaders.

If a complete rebranding is to take place, then will this Crusaders side be able to maintain its winning ways? It may sound ridiculous to some that a name or identity change could have an impact on results moving forwards, but losing an identity shaped meticulously around success could very well leave the Crusaders in somewhat of a rut.

It’s as much about how other teams see the Crusaders as it is about the Crusaders players see themselves. Travelling to Christchurch to play the Crusaders has always been a frightening task, even in some of the more recent seasons when the Crusaders weren’t quite the unstoppable force they had once been (and have since returned to). Will the new team name continue to instil fear in the hearts of opposition?

A large contingent of Crusaders players may remain next year when any rebranding is to come in to play, even after the World Cup exodus, but we’ve seen in the past that sometimes good teams with great coaches can still fall short, simply due to mental hurdles.

In 2013 the Highlanders had one of the best teams in the competition and a much-respected coach in the form of Jamie Joseph, but that didn’t stop the franchise from finishing 14th in the competition. Only two years later the Highlanders bounced back (with much of the same squad and the same coach) to become champions. Sometimes there are more factors at play in how a team performs than just the team itself.

At present, the Crusaders are the best performing squad in Super Rugby – and they have been for the better part of the last two decades. Take away the name, take away the identity, and that ingrained winning culture may well go with it.

At the end of the day, if a change has to be made then so be it. This is bigger than rugby and sometimes sports has to take the back seat to more important things in the world. However, just because a change is necessary, it doesn’t mean the team will be able to continue on as it has in the past.

If any team in Super Rugby can overcome and rebuild after great tragedy then it is the Crusaders, but let’s not pretend that losing the identity they have built over the last 23 years won’t have an impact on their future results.

Highlanders lock Tom Franklin talks to the media:

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Changing identities may change a winning culture - but that's not the point