The New Zealander’s approach to coaching the franchise is using a unique theme to connect his players to a common purpose and to each other. Two years ago, that source of daily motivation was the story of Muhammad Ali and the heavyweight champion’s exploits of 1974.
Ali hadn’t been champion in nine years, had lost two attempts at reclaiming the world heavyweight championship and people said he was past it.
When Robertson was appointed in Christchurch, the Crusaders had gone nine years without a title, had lost two finals in their recent history and were being written off.
“He lost two heavyweight championships of the world, and then fought George Foreman in The Rumble In The Jungle. He beat a guy who was bigger than him, stronger than him. Shouldn’t have won that fight. And at that moment he became the greatest,” said Robertson in an extensive video interview with The 1014 Rugby.
Ali’s similarity with the rugby franchise’s background wasn’t lost on the coach. “We had lost two finals. Everyone said we were too old and we were done. The dynasty was finished,” continued Robertson who set about tapping into the emotion surrounding the Ali comeback.
“As soon as you see a picture you get a connection in your head, which connects to feelings. You want people to feel and become emotive, and invest their interest in that common goal.
“We changed up our defence. More around knocking people out and more inventive, more aggressive words. We used a lot of our boxing themes.”
Then came the Super Rugby final, a trip to face the Lions in Johannesburg which Robertson framed as the Crusaders’ own Rumble in the Jungle which they went on to win. “Let’s go – we’re in the rumble in the jungle, baby. Let’s fight, and do something special,” he said.
Crusaders’ use of season-long themes didn’t end there. There had a different approach when successfully defending their title in 2018 and another is being rolled out through their current campaign as they strive to win a third title in a succession.
“Every meeting it’s there. You live it every day. You’d be blown away. And last year’s one was even better,” said assistant coach Ronan O’Gara, who was part of The 1014 Rugby interview.
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