The Crusaders have a history of producing somewhat handy openside flankers.
Matt Todd had a stronghold on the fetcher position with the red and blacks for the last four seasons while All Blacks legend Richie McCaw spent almost 15 years as the region’s preferred openside.
While it’s still early days yet, it appears that 22-year-old Tom Christie is the next man set for a long stint in the coveted No. 7 jersey.
Christie, who captained the New Zealand Under 20 side at the 2018 World Championships, was in exceptional form for Canterbury during last year’s Mitre 10 Cup but wasn’t anticipating getting too many minutes in Super Rugby this year, despite Todd’s departure overseas.
Billy Harmon, now in his third season with the Crusaders, was the man earmarked to take over from Todd but a pre-season knee injury parked him on the sidelines for the competition’s kick-off. In stepped Christie – and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I was really happy with how the year started off for me,” Christie told RugbyPass.
“Obviously, I knew there was going to be an opportunity with Toddy leaving but for me to see as much game time as I did, I definitely didn’t anticipate anything like that. I was just stoked to be out there, for one thing, and to get a taste of what Super Rugby’s like.
“I’m very competitive in what I do, so I want to strive for those honours but definitely, I didn’t have any anticipation of playing the six games that we got [before COVID halted the season] and playing quite a lot of minutes in those games too. It was the perfect dream run for me.”
The downside, of course, is that Christie hasn’t spent as much time either training or playing alongside Harmon – a man a few years his senior who was an excellent mentor at Canterbury over Christie’s first two seasons with the province.”
“You’ve got to look at both sides of the coin,” said Christie. “I was gutted to see Billy get injured because he’s such a good player as well and when me and him are both in teams together, like Canterbury, it’s really good to have that kind of competition aspect
“Fortunately, he’s recovered now, so we’ve got that battle back and having more competition is going to be exciting.”
Even now that Harmon is injury-free, however, Christie’s still the Crusaders’ go-to man. Harmon started the opening two matches of Super Rugby Aotearoa, with Christie nursing an injury of his own, but Christie was reinstated for the Crusader’ games against the Highlanders and the Chiefs.
That’s a credit to the work that the former Shirley Boys’ High student got through in the first six rounds of the initial Super Rugby season.
From the Crusaders’ opening round fixture against the Waratahs, it was apparent that Christie was something special. In that 43-25 win, Christie notched up 18 tackles – four more than any other Crusader player.
By the end of the Crusaders’ six matches, Christie had made 111 tackles – that’s over 18 tackles a game and 23 more tackles than Liam Wright, the competition’s second most productive tackler. Christie had also clocked up the second-most minutes of any Crusaders player and forced 5 ruck penalties, which placed him second overall behind Lachlan Boshier.
Those figures would put seasoned professionals to shame yet Christie is just in his debut season.
Still, despite defying the expectations anyone would have for a debutant, Christie is still just finding his feet at Super Rugby level.
“The focus for me was was just kind of getting settled,” Christie said. “Obviously, we won our first few games, but I was still reasonably nervous because I like to hold myself to high standards in anything I do.
“After the first games, it just became more about getting comfortable with the new level of rugby and just settling into what it was going to be like. It wasn’t too much about trying to do everything, it was just about getting that consistency in my game and just trusting myself at that next level.”
Christie, naturally, is well-aware of the legacy behind the Crusaders 7 jersey – and has made the most of the time he’s spent around Matt Todd over the last couple of years.
“I just watched, really, and picked up a lot of his mannerisms, a lot of his professional traits,” Christie said of the 25-cap All Black. “He’s just the perfect guy to model your behaviour off because everything he does in his preparation and stuff is spot on. Those are the big learnings I took from him, how you can really be a professional and deliver week-in and week-out.
“He and Richie obviously had different careers but they both gave a lot to the 7 jersey for the Crusaders. That’s why it’s one of those jerseys that’s just so special.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 20, 2020
“I’m a Canterbury kid; I grew up watching McCaw first and then Toddy. Up at Nelson for my Crusaders debut, it was an awesome moment to first of all, kind of see the 7 jersey and hold it, and then secondly, to actually sit there and go, ‘This is my turn.’
“For someone who’s grown up watching those guys, it was quite a moment.”
Perhaps the greatest benefit of Super Rugby Aotearoa has been seeing players who are ultimately all vying for the black jersey go head to head every week.
Sam Cane and Ardie Savea will, of course, have large roles to play at the next World Cup but with Todd now based in Japan, there’s potentially room for another tearaway to make the step up to the next level. That presents an opportunity for the likes of Dalton Papalii, Lachlan Boshier, Du’Plessis Kirifi, Dillon Hunt and Christie, amongst others.
And while Christie is just focussing on Super Rugby Aotearoa for the moment, it would be disingenuous to suggest that playing for the Crusaders is necessarily the end goal for the 22-year-old.
“I’ve always backed myself, I’ve always had the dream of wanting to play rugby at the next level but you never really think it’s going to happen,” said Christie. “Obviously, just like any other Kiwi kids, when I was five, I wanted to be an All Blacks star. It’s something you’re kind of working towards but it’s never something that you’re like, ‘Right, that’s going to happen.’
“I’ve still got that boyhood dream now.”
If Christie keeps performing to the same high standard he’s already set in Super Rugby to date, then perhaps All Blacks honours could be on the cards sooner rather than later.
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