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'We couldn’t believe it... we were coming back after a loss'

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It is doubtful any coaching rival knows Super coach Robbie Deans better than Todd Blackadder.

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The former All Black, Crusaders and Canterbury skipper, who combined with the Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights coach to win titles with each of the latter, goes up against his former mentor in a final for the first time as he prepares Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo for Japan Rugby League One’s decider on Sunday.

The pair worked together in a captain/coach relationship for four years, winning New Zealand’s national provincial championship with Canterbury in Deans’s first year coaching at that level in 1997, which was followed by Super Rugby success in Deans’s maiden season as Crusaders boss three years later.

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They even hail from the same amateur club, Glenmark-Cheviot, about 90 minutes north of Christchurch.

But while Deans began his coaching journey – which has yielded five Super Rugby titles, six in Japan as well as a Tri-Nations from his six years in charge of the Wallabies – in familiar surroundings, part of his former lieutenant’s development took a northern hemisphere road, at Bath where his work remains underrated.

Although the New Zealander failed to make the semi-finals, consecutive top six finishes as well as qualification for the European Champions Cup were a more than respectable return given what came later at the west country club.

Blackadder arrived at Bath after beginning his coaching career with Tasman in the upper South Island.

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He then succeeded Deans at the Crusaders in 2009, after his former coach had brought him onto the staff as an assistant two years earlier.

The Crusaders failed to win a title during Blackadder’s eight seasons at the helm, but they did make the final twice, losing to an injury time penalty goal by the Waratahs Bernard Foley in 2014, having three years earlier lost another tight final against the Queensland Reds.

Despite coming up short, that campaign was the most remarkable in Super Rugby, and arguably international club history, after the 2011 earthquake devastated Christchurch, and wrecked the Crusaders’ home ground Lancaster Park, one game into the season.

Forced to play their remaining 17 matches away from home, a programme which resembled a magical mystery tour stretching all the way to Twickenham, they still won 13 times and made the final; an achievement which saw supporters flock to Christchurch airport to show their appreciation when the team arrived back from Brisbane.

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As Sam Whitelock related to me later, you would have thought they had won the title.

“As as we flew home late on the Sunday night, it was hard to shut out the thoughts of how the game had gone and how it could have been different, even though you try to.

“Then the pilot told us that there was a huge crowd waiting for us.

“We couldn’t believe it, it was after midnight when we landed, and we were coming back after a loss. To see all those people there, it was quite incredible.

“I’m not an emotional person, but that was the closest I’d come to tears that year. It wasn’t until then that we really understood that what we’d done in adversity was pretty amazing.”

They had won something bigger than a title: the hearts and minds of a community in need.

Blackadder acknowledges the experience made him a better coach; a fact borne out by his success in Japan since he arrived in 2020, where he has overcome the language barrier to forge a 70% success rate, steadily building Brave Lupus into a formidable entity.

“A lot of innovation came out of it, such as when we couldn’t train, we could still walk the match through in a room, talking about it, discussing how we would adapt to different scenarios,” he said.

“It made us better communicators.”

After reaching the semi-finals two years ago, Brave Lupus narrowly missed out last year, despite a six-game winning run at the tail end, which was halted by the Wild Knights one game shy of the semi-finals.

The loss was one of four Blackadder has had facing his good mate in Japan.

Blackadder has never gone into a contest with Deans better armed than now though, primarily due to the acquisition of Richie Mo’unga, who has delivered for Brave Lupus in precisely the manner the boss expected he would.

His association with the All Black flyhalf dates to his final season at the Crusaders in 2016 when he backed the then 21-year-old as his first choice, starting him in all 16 games.

Mo’unga rewarded the faith with 179 points, more than legends Dan Carter (102) and Andrew Mehrtens (94) had scored in their maiden seasons.

The opportunity set Mo’unga on the pathway to becoming a seasoned international, and their relationship undoubtedly played a part in the seven-time Super Rugby’s winner’s decision to join his former coach in Japan following last year’s Rugby World Cup.

In recruiting the All Black, along with his international colleague, backrower Shannon Frizell, Blackadder hopes that he has put in place the final piece of a title-winning jigsaw.

On Sunday against the current benchmark in the Japanese club game, we will all find out.

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1 Comment
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Graham 26 days ago

Great story this. Todd Blackadder coaching against his old mentor Robbie Deans in the Japanese final. What a game this is , with Richie Mo’unga , another Crusaders legend in Toddy’s side. I remember well Todd Blackadder captaining Canterbury in 1997 to our first NPC title in 14 years and Robbie Deans was the coach. Culminated in a great final against Counties-Manakau here in CHCH, ( I was at). Of course Robbie Deans , ( as article stated ), got his first of 5 Super title wins in 2000 and Todd was the captain of the Crusaders.I remember being at the airport when the Crusaders returned to CHCH after bravely getting to the final in 2011. Todd Blackadder did great as coach , as team did not have one game here because of the earthquake damage to Lancaster Park. As Sam Whitelock said it was emotional that night. They did not win,to make the Final was a huge achivement. Todd Blackadder of course won 3 Super titles in a row as captain ‘98, 99 and 2000. Great article Matt McIllraith.

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