Leon MacDonald’s appointment as head coach of the Blues in 2019 came as a surprise not because the former All Black hadn’t proven himself as a worthy Super Rugby coach, but because MacDonald had always been a Crusaders man through and through.
The 43-year-old was born and raised in Blenheim and played his early provincial football for Malborough before shifting south to Canterbury. Over a century of matches followed with the Crusaders before the former fullback was forced into an early retirement due to concussion.
Not long after, MacDonald took up an assistant coaching post with the Tasman Mako then made the step up to Super Rugby, where he assisted Scott Robertson. After just one year with the Crusaders, however, MacDonald called it quits and returned to Tasman as head coach.
The common perception at the time was that MacDonald had pulled the plug early on a two-year deal with the Crusaders, but as he has now revealed on Sky Sports’ The Conversation podcast, that wasn’t the case.
“It was only actually a one-year [contract] with the right to extend – so I wasn’t cutting that short. Just want to make that clear, I didn’t walk out on the contract,” MacDonald clarified. “And the reason it was only a one-plus-one set-up was because our kids were at school at the time and we weren’t ready to shift them. They were starting college and it was sort of those important years at school where we liked to keep them settled.
“I also had this burning desire really to get my teeth into some head coaching because at some point, when I wanted to shift into Super Rugby, I wanted to have some head coaching experience behind me so that if there was an opportunity to step up to head coach, I had that experience to do so. So there was a bit of a plan in place.
“I would have loved to come back [to the Crusaders] but just the unsettled nature of the kids at school at Blenheim and shifting back and forth at the time wasn’t quite right. We just held steady for another three years and as the kids got through their schooling and through the back-end of it, it felt like the right time to make that shift to Super Rugby more permanently.
With Robertson locked in at the Crusaders – and riding high on two straight championships – MacDonald had to look elsewhere for a head coaching role. The Blues had Tana Umaga on their books but he was looking to take a step backwards and move into an assistant role, which presented the opportunity for MacDonald to shift north.
The Conversation co-host Rikki Swannell questioned MacDonald whether it was a tough move, given the heated rivalry between the Blues and the Crusaders.
“Yes and no. No, not really,” responded MacDonald “You know, the Blues hated the Crusaders and the Crusaders hated the Blues – it’s one of New Zealand’s best rivalries, but you’ve gotta be realistic.
“Everybody changes teams, generally, and it doesn’t take long for your new team to become your new colours and become really passionate because you get to know the people and you start to care for them and you start building a bond as a team.
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“Walking through the doors for the first time at Blues HQ was a bit funny, I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I’m really proud now to take people through there now and it feels like home and there are a lot of familiar faces that make me feel really welcome there so it’s been a good shift.”
Since MacDonald’s move north, the Blues have recorded 10 wins from 23 matches. The 43 per cent win rate may not be worth getting excited about on its own (though it’s still higher than that of the previous two coaches), but the Blues’ Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign last year was a resounding success, with the Aucklanders managing a second-place finish – behind the Crusaders.
Following some excellent performances from a number of Blues players during the All Blacks’ tests throughout 2020, there’s reason for Blues fans to be hopeful heading into the 2021 season, even with a former Crusader at the helm once more.
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