In January, it was announced that the Crusaders had partnered up with Australia’s University of Wollongong to create a new rugby offering at the university which would help promising athletes bolster their chances at a professional career in the sport.
The Global Rugby Program mimics the current football program already up and running at the University of Wollongong which has seen the Tottenham Hotspur club send coaches south to create one of the best offerings in the region for athletes who want to improve their sporting prowess but also prepare themselves for a life outside of sport.
“At the University of Wollongong, sportsmen and women will be going and getting all the benefits of being a full-time student at the university, in terms of accommodation, student support – plus we’ll be able to provide footy support too,” says Crusaders CEO Colin Mansbridge.
The Crusaders are well versed in nurturing young talent – it’s one of the main reasons that they’ve finished as Super Rugby champions a record 10 times.
Their latest imitative, alongside the University of Wollongong, will actually be the third full-term rugby development program that the club offers.
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The current two programs include an International Academy in Christchurch for talented players from across the globe as well as their Crusaders development academy which acts as pathway into the Super Rugby side.
The programs have very different end goals.
While the Crusaders development academy is used to funnel the next generation of Crusaders into the full squad, that’s not the case for the International Academy.
“Generally speaking, most of the athletes that come and do time in our International Academy then go back home and try and get into their national side,” says Mansbridge. “They don’t necessarily choose to stay here and try and become a Crusader.”
It’s also not dissimilar to what Mansbridge expects from the new program in Australia.
“We want to grow people’s love for the game, we want to grow more athletes who are enjoying the game, and we want to spread the game around the world.
“Wayne Smith used to make the comment that if you want to get better, you’ve got to cooperate and collaborate to make sure everybody gets better so that they can continue to put pressure on you.
“We’re not threatened by the opportunity to see if we can share some of what we do with athletes and hope that they improve.”
If that leads to better athletes in Australia, Mansbridge isn’t too concerned.
“Most New Zealand rugby people would love to see Australia be great again. We would be very proud if athletes that came through our international academies then chose to play for Australia – we’d be happy with that.”
That may seem like a pipe dream to some, but the club’s proven record at producing exceptional talent speaks for itself: In each of the last three World Cup cycles, the Crusaders have produced more All Blacks than any of the other New Zealand Super Rugby sides.
They’re also the New Zealand franchise that’s least reliant on bringing players into the squad who have already been at least partially developed by another club.
The proof is there for anyone to see – but that doesn’t explain why the Crusaders are so good at converting promising players into proven professionals.
Obviously, the Crusaders academy is doing an exceptional job at filtering talent through – and it works a little bit differently to the rest of New Zealand’s Super Rugby academies.
“I think we’re reputed to have probably some of the better connections between our provincial unions, Canterbury and Tasman,” says Mansbridge.
“The two provinces effectively contracted us to take over their academies. Rather than being a separate academy for each province, which tends to be the norm elsewhere, Canterbury and Tasman have delegated that responsibility to us.
“We run a site here in Christchurch and a site in Nelson and we take players into both those academies and run them similarly. We have different people leading the programs but it’s overseen out of Christchurch and it’s definitely a Crusaders’ academy focus.
“The players are released for Mitre 10 and club footy but all of the culture, values, processes and systems are Crusaders-led.”
That means before the up-and-coming players are even training with the full squad, they’re well entrenched in the Crusaders culture – and there are other benefits of the Crusaders-led program too.
At many provinces around the country, an abundance of promising players in one position may push others to head elsewhere. That’s not quite the case in the Crusaders catchment area.
“We always do a little bit of work around where’s the best place for a new athlete to be based,” Mansbridge says. “What’s the best place for them to study or do a trade or something of that nature?
“As an athlete starts getting through the back-end of their academy and starts thinking about which roster should they go into, they’ll look at the depth of Canterbury and the depth of Tasman and talk to their agent, their parents, et cetera and then they’ll make a choice about which team they would prefer to sign with.
A case in point is All Black-in waiting Will Jordan, who signed with Tasman in 2017 after spending his formative years in Canterbury. At the time, Tasman CEO Tony Lewis spoke of the strong relationship between the Crusaders and the regions that helped bring the fullback to Tasman.
“We’ve worked together to ensure this guy is not lost to the region and he’s going to be playing rugby at the highest level as soon as he’s capable,” Lewis said.
Losing Jordan elsewhere was a very real possibility, given there was little chance for the 17-year-old to break into a team that had just won two Mitre 10 premierships on the trot (never mind that Tasman had finished in the top three for the four prior years too).
Canterbury had the likes of George Bridge, Braydon Ennor, Josh McKay, Marshall Suckling and Poasa Waqanibau on the books which would have seriously compromised Jordan’s chances of game time – so the switch to Tasman was a perfect solution to the problem.
Canterbury’s ‘loss’ was very much Tasman’s gain – though it’s unlikely the flyer will accrue too many provincial caps moving forward with the national side likely to come calling in the near future.
“Sometimes there’s a little bit of tension between Canterbury and Tasman around some athletes, but it’s healthy and respectful,” says Mansbridge. “The relationship we have with those two is exceptional and they’ll always be thinking about athletes first.”
It’s not just retaining their own talent that the Crusaders excel at, however. Men like Braydon Ennor and Bryn Hall specifically made the choice to shift from their home region to link up with the Crusaders.
Mansbridge doesn’t think it’s a case of other teams not recognising the potential in certain players, however, it’s simply that the Crusaders are able to put the best holistic package on the table.
“Generally speaking, most of the standout players probably will be approached by every club,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s about us identifying someone who another team missed. My sense is that, in most cases, we all know who the athletes are and we’ll all talk to them and in the end the athlete makes the choice about what’s best for them.
“When it comes to making decisions, they’ll consider things like how they can integrate education with sport, how accessible the club and training are, the team environment itself, how welcome the player feels and those sorts of things. We’ve got a good academy team and when they get to meet the guys and talk to past players, we obviously do well in those areas.
“We’re lucky enough that in some cases – Braydon’s a good example – they choose to come here.”
And once players enter the Crusaders system, they tend to stick around.
While other franchises may lose players in their prime to overseas clubs – think Charles Piutau, Liam Squire, Victor Vito – the Crusaders have managed to keep men such as Matt Todd and Wyatt Crockett around for longer than many would expect.
“When you belong here, it’s a hard place to leave,” Mansbridge says.
“I’ve seen a couple of athletes leave recently and – it’s no disrespect to the environments they’ve gone into – I just know they really struggled to leave. It was very difficult and emotional for them to leave.
“If you went through and examined all the elements of the culture here, that has an impact. The coaching staff are obviously very good. The other staff are also very good – the medical staff, the high-performance staff – there’s something pretty special about this place.
“It’s not always about playing every week, it’s about getting better. It’s a combination of factors.
“You can be more authentic in some environments than you can be in others – and we try and make it better all the time.”
Mansbridge isn’t disparaging New Zealand’s other clubs – far from it. Players from other teams have experienced similar difficulties when leaving.
“Aaron Cruden is a really good example of this situation,” explains Mansbridge.
“You look at him as an athlete in the Chiefs environment before he went overseas and he was special; he fitted in the system, he understood the processes, he understood the culture. Then you lift him and shift him into another environment… and overseas he’s not even described as half the player as we now see playing the game again for the Chiefs today.”
The Crusaders’ new partnership with the University of Wollongong will now give more athletes around the world the opportunity to truly experience the Crusaders culture and while the exact details of the coaching set-up are yet to be ironed out, participants will certainly get the chance to work with some of the Crusaders region’s most talented coaches.
“Razor [Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson] has put his hand up,” reveals Mansbridge. “He’s not going to be there fulltime obviously but our Super coaches will do some work there at some point in time – we’ll just have to build that into the schedule.”
Robertson helped guide the New Zealand Under 20 side to a World Championship title in 2015 and has helped guide a relatively young Crusaders side to three successive Super Rugby titles so it should come as no major surprise that he’s interested in working with the University’s young talent.
The partnership should prove fruitful for both the university and the Super Rugby franchise, with the Crusaders able to use the Global Rugby Program as an extra pipeline for developing up-and-coming coaches in the region.
It also allows the club to remain connected not just with the Canterbury and Tasman regions but with the wider rugby community.
“One of the things that I’ve needed to do through dealing with post-15th of March [the Christchurch terrorist attacks] is having to reach out for support and also to offer support,” says Mansbridge. “It’s a great way to build relationships when you do that.
“We’re in this situation now where we’re like-minded organisations and there’s a partnership. That wouldn’t have arisen without almost being forced to be in a mindset of both offering and seeking support.”
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