When Mike Delany, a 35-year old, greying first five from the Bay of Plenty, took a call earlier this year from Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, he thought he was the victim of some kind of prank. Robertson had phoned to gauge Delany’s interest in joining up with the defending Super Rugby champions in 2018. It was not a drill. Today Delany was named in the squad and no one, it seems, is more surprised than him.
Delany’s comeback just keeps on giving. Many assumed he had returned to New Zealand to go round one more time at provincial level before doing what most guys his age do and hanging up the boots for good. It seems Delany’s barrel of juju has not yet been completely tapped and, after guiding the Steamers to a first final in 17 seasons, he still feels like he has something more to give.
“It’s all a little bit surreal to be honest,” he says with a chuckle. “I get a fair bit of stick for having had more clubs than Arnold Palmer, but what a great opportunity to go and learn from some of the very best in the game.”
Yes, every day is a school day for Mike Delany.
Perhaps that’s why he has been able to sustain a competitive professional career for more than a decade. He just wants to keep learning. He says he has enjoyed the year back in New Zealand – his first since a short relief stint with the Highlanders in 2012 – mainly because he felt as if he was being coached again.
“[Bay of Plenty Assistant Coach] David Hill has been so good for me this season in terms of adding to my game,” he says. “I felt over the last couple of years in Europe that I wasn’t being coached, and I think that’s a problem in the European set up in general. You can never rest on your laurels in this game. If you do, you’ll be spat out pretty quickly.”
While Delany only played the one test for the All Blacks (in a tough 20-6 victory over Italy in Milan in 2009) he has amassed 47 Super Rugby caps with the Highlanders and the Chiefs, and appeared in 30 matches for both Clermont and Newcastle. He also earned 27 caps of Japanese powerhouse Panasonic. His experience, and his presence in the environment make this student of the game the ideal teacher.
“I am just so keen to see what makes that team tick,” he says. “I really enjoyed my time back in the Bay of Plenty under Clayton McMillan and Hilly and having got through the campaign in one piece I feel I can add to the Crusaders in any way they require.”
And don’t think for a second he won’t be competing for starts. Delany has never been satisfied with making up the numbers. During his time with the Chiefs he battled Stephen Donald for starts. Neither player wanted to give the other a break in that respect. They even renewed their friendly rivalry during the Mitre 10 Cup when they faced eachother at Tauranga Domain.
“I’m sure he grabbed my balls in a ruck!” Says Delany with a laugh. “Well, someone did and he was close by, that’s for sure. It was bloody good to have a run against Beaver that day. I think I cramped up in the 74th minute and it seemed fitting given our battles over the years that the game ended in a draw.
To the casual observer, Delany’s selection may seem an odd one given the Crusaders already have two young and rapidly rising first fives in Richie Mo’unga and Mitch Hunt. However, when one considers the influence on the squad from men like Tim Bateman and Wyatt Crockett, Mike Delany’s name on the squad list does not seem out of place at all.
And besides, while the hair may be greying, the enthusiasm has not waned one bit.
“I made a promise to myself a couple of seasons ago to wake up each day, get keen, and go out there and enjoy my rugby. It can be a challenge in the grind of the European season, but that’s what keeps you going.
“I know those young boys at the Crusaders are really impressive, but I’ll be coming in full noise and I intend to put the heat on them to keep improving every week. I can only assume that’s why I have been picked.”
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