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From facing the haka to Crusaders return, why Johnny McNicholl answered SOS call

By Adam Julian
Johnny McNicholl of the Crusaders celebrates after scoring a try during the round six Super Rugby Pacific match between Crusaders and Chiefs at Apollo Projects Stadium, on March 29, 2024, in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Don’t tell Johnny McNicholl the Crusaders are done for.

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The Crusaders have lost eight matches in Super Rugby Pacific 2024, which is the same number of defeats they suffered in the inaugural Super Rugby season in 1996 when they finished last in the championship standings.

Remarkably, the reigning champions can still make the playoffs if they win their remaining four fixtures.

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If finals footy is elusive for the first time since 2015, McNicholl is determined to showcase his worth; a seasoned professional who wasn’t even supposed to be in Christchurch in the first place.

“I had five months left on my Scarlets contract when I got a text from my old mate Matt Todd (Crusaders Assistant coach). He asked me if I’d like to come back to the Crusaders as a replacement player for Will Jordan,” McNicholl told RugbyPass.

“I told him I’ll properly have to pass but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be nice to go home and show off my ability in a struggling setup.

“Things came together quickly from a contract perspective. It was basically a phone call between Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel and Crusaders coach Rob Penny to settle that side of things.

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“Scarlets have been unbelievable to me but coming off-contract was a good time to move on. When I arrived at the Crusaders, I couldn’t believe how young the squad was. I want to share my knowledge and experience. I’m looking for another contract in 2025, here or elsewhere.”

McNicholl is 33 years old.  The versatile outside back is a product of Cashmere High School and Sydenham Rugby Club.

His first stint in professional rugby in New Zealand stretched from 2011 to 2016. He played 60 games for Canterbury (48 wins) scoring 31 tries, and capturing five NPC Premierships. With the Crusaders he played 40 games (26 wins) and scored 15 tries with appearances in three playoff campaigns.

With no interest shown by All Blacks selectors, McNicholl departed to the Northern Hemisphere. He played 123 games for Scarlets (65 wins) and scored 56 tries.  Scarlets won the Pro12 title in 2016-17. In 2019 he became eligible to play for Wales and scored a try on debut in a 44-33 victory against the Barbarians.

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His Test debut followed a year later in a 42-0 whitewash of Italy. McNicholl played in the 29-28 win over the Wallabies in 2021 when Rhys Priestland slotted a penalty goal with the last kick of the game.

McNicholl also played in a 54-16 loss to the All Blacks in 2021, an experience he described as his favourite international against “many mates.”

“Facing the haka was pretty surreal. It all went so quickly, and the All Blacks were so physical and clinical. I swapped jerseys with Codie Taylor afterward. He’s one of my best mates. Can you seriously believe he’s scored 43 tries for the Crusaders? They should be disallowed. All he’s done is hang off the lineout drive,” McNicholl laughed.

With such mileage on the clock, McNicholl hit Christchurch like a comet. He scored two tries in the Crusaders 37-26 victory over the Chiefs in Round 6 of Super Rugby Pacific as the Crusaders snapped a franchise record five-game losing streak.

“That was an enjoyable return on a personal level. It was the first game of rugby I’d played in front of my stepdad in seven years. Mark Lewis got me into rugby in the first place,” McNicholl said.

“When this team hits their straps we’re capable of matching it with anyone and though injuries are part and parcel of the game, we’ve got lots of good cattle to return.

“I’m lucky I started playing around the time sports science was coming in. There is such a focus on recovery now which is expanding careers. Massage, soft tissue therapy, hot and cold pools, diet, load management. These things are becoming more normal which means you can sustain yourself longer. I reckon Willi Heinz will play until he’s 40.”

McNicholl has been around long enough to appreciate things often don’t go your way. The following week against the Waratahs, the Crusaders were ahead 40-37 when McNicholl, after a strong display, was yellow carded and penalised in the final minute for a deliberate knock-on. Will Harrison kicked a penalty to send the contest to extra time and then repeated the dose in the additional period as the Waratahs won 43-40.

“I actually dislocated my finger and was hesitant going for the ball. If I’d been more decisive, I properly would have caught it. If you look at the replay you can see I’m trying to catch it. Should you get ten minutes for that? Not sure, but it is what it is,” McNicholl said.

“There’d be a 50/50 split on golden point extra time among the players. I don’t mind it. Nobody really wants a draw, though I would have preferred it in the Waratahs game.

“There’s always more than one thing that contributes to the result of a game. but maybe it could be golden try wins instead of a penalty or drop goal.

“You do go over all these those scenarios at training. You have to address it more than once just in case it actually happens. The margin of error is small.”

McNicholl scored a try in the 39-0 hammering of the Rebels a fortnight ago but last Saturday, the Crusaders were upset 33-28 by the Reds. It was the first time since the 2011 final that the Crusaders had lost to the Reds. The last time the Reds won in Christchurch was 36-23 in 1999. Wallabies legend Chris Latham (78 Tests, 40 tries, 50 wins) scored two tries. First Five Nathan Spooner scored 21 points. Spooner scored 25 points for Australia in two Test wins against Ireland in 1999 (46-10 & 32-26).

“I feel as much pressure playing for the Crusaders as I did for Wales,” McNicoll said.

“With the Crusaders there is that expectation to win. In Wales, rugby is like a religion. I think I’m good at dealing with pressure. Pressure is a good thing because if you feel it, you care. It’s just a question of managing things, and not letting it overwhelm you.

“Following good routines during the week helps. It’s a matter of professional pride, trying to be the best you can in every game. I don’t intend on hanging around just collect a pay cheque.”

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