x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Blackadder goes forth

After assisting the Crusaders last year during Robbie Deans' triumphal final crusade, Todd Blackadder is now in charge.

Hours after the Crusaders claimed their first Super rugby title, their captain Todd Blackadder was still wandering around Eden Park with a goofy smile. He was still bemused, almost unable to believe his side had ventured north to the enemy lair at Eden Park and conquered the champion Blues. The Crusaders had upset the Blues who were shooting for their third title in the opening three years of the professional series. It was a final the Blues should have romped when you compared the sides. The Blues, led by the incomparable Michael Jones, were so laden in talent that the hooker James Christian was the only non-All Black while the Crusaders had grafted a tough mob around their only Test regular Andrew Mehrtens. The Test halfback Justin Marshall was injured while colleagues like Blackadder, Norm Maxwell, Scott Robertson, Reuben Thorne and Mark Hammett had yet to be picked for an international. Reputations meant nothing on that final Saturday in May 1998 when, with a minute left in the game, the Crusaders wing James Kerr beat three Blues defenders to touchdown Mehrtens' stab kick.

No one knew it then but that shock result was the end of a Blues reign and the start of a Crusaders run of three straight titles. Blackadder ascended to the All Blacks and the national captaincy before taking his talents to Scotland, first as a player, then as a coach. He has been back home for a while plying his various talents in Nelson as their chief executive and coach while also assisting the Crusaders last year during Robbie Deans' triumphal final crusade. Now Blackadder, 37, is in charge. He has done his time on the apprentice trail, he was in no rush, he wanted to learn all about what makes a professional rugby franchise tick from dealing with agents, players' contracts, sponsorships, stadium trusts, annual memberships, lack of patronage, player difficulties, you name it. Blackadder rolled his sleeves up and attacked all those issues as part of the portfolio he knew he had to accumulate before he coached the Crusaders. He has followed Deans, the most successful coach in Super rugby history, who handed the job to the man who thrust his left hand high into the night sky in Auckland 11 years ago, as the proud skipper of the first Crusaders side to annexe the Super series. Blackadder spent a large chunk of his early summer sorting out his maiden speech to the Crusaders. It had to be meaningfully succinct, stimulating and emotional. And in-house. This was a time for Blackadder and his troops to be on their own, united but in their world, as they need to be in this year's series when they defend their title. "1998 was a real starting point for us as a franchise," Blackadder recalled. "The support we got that season really galvanised us because we could see that people really could identify with us. We had been at the bottom and we were looking for a response from all the players, we had to have the psychology to turn the corner. The coaches and the support staff all believed in us, we were well coached, well drilled and we believed in ourselves.

"We still had to walk those steps even when we were concerned. The road to that final are still some of my best memories at the start of my career. It was the start of the Crusaders as we know them these days." Blackadder remembers his current coaching sidekick Mark Hammett, talking of the values needed in those campaigns, about never being complacent, never taking anything for granted and making sure the team left an enduring legacy for those who followed in the Crusaders' strip. "We were against the ropes in that game, there was so much pressure. We led by a slender margin at one stage then it was all tied up and then we got that last try. It was tough, it was finals footy, it was about having the mental strength to last the distance." Fast forward 11 years and first-time coach Blackadder is about to send his troops into battle for the Crusaders. The build-up seemed to be in slow-motion. The team and the coach were ready but the competition was still in the distance. It seemed months ago that Blackadder made his maiden address to his troops, the speech meant to hit his mob between the eyes and stay with them throughout what would be a rugged inquisition from other New Zealand, Australian and South African franchises. A four month slog through heat, travel, injuries, obstacles, rain, refereeing mysteries and quality rivals to find the Super 14 champion at the end of May. "I spent a lot of time planning before I made my first speech," Blackadder said. "It was critical I got my tone and my message at the right pitch. First impressions are very important. "I was happy. I was anxious but pleased to make a good start and excited because this means so much to me. We have to make our own culture down here and we have talked about what is important and why it is important. We talked about the mix between stimulation and expectation and why we are what we are."

It was a short introduction, clarity had to be the key according to Blackadder. It was meant to be all-empowering and all-inclusive. It was not about Blackadder, not about the coaches' expectations but more about what the franchise deserved and expected. Did that include the pressure of the Crusaders' legacy? "There is always pressure as a top professional team to perform and do the business," the coach replied. "It is an expectation but also an opportunity. No one person sees it as the same thing but there are chances there for everyone. "If there is one thing I have learned down the years it is that players have to see this sort of series as an opportunity. They can't see it as a burden because trying to recreate the past is not possible. We are the 2009 Crusaders. And if there is one thing I can assure you it is that we are not a one-person show, we all have to contribute. I have still got to run the ship but we are all accumulating knowledge and experiences as we go." It has been easy in recent seasons to think of the Crusaders as a two-man team when they have had the imperious talents of the captain and flanker Richie McCaw and the masterful direction of Daniel Carter to lean on. Two genuine superstars of the modern game and both in the same team. But this Super 14 season, Carter is on duty with Toulon though that sabbatical has now been interrupted with his Achilles tendon injury. McCaw remains but with an even greater weight of expectation that his gifts will rub off on his teammates. "To be honest, the absence of Daniel Carter is not something which has been talked about or discussed much at all. We knew he was going so that was not something we could control. We had to move on and deal with what we had some influence on," Blackadder said. "Stephen Brett and Colin Slade are both very exciting five eighths. I have faith in those two. We have been fortunate to have had the remarkable Carter but this year is no different from other times in the Crusaders' history. Mehrtens was the best five eighths in the world and when he went people were all wondering what we would do.

"Carter stepped into his shoes quite magnificently and now that he is not there this season, it will be someone else's turn especially with an All Black jersey up for grabs." When he chose his squad, Blackadder did so with his ideas of a general game plan for the season though he will be quite happy to alter those schemes if players find other patterns which suit their play more. The players were all in good shape, they had completed a lengthy strength and conditioning programme which should last them the season. "The Crusaders have always played a certain style and we will be looking to complement that," Blackadder said. "It has been a successful template and we just have to build on that, work ultra hard and play smart. We have three young coaches here (himself, Hammett and Daryl Gibson), we have all had some overseas experience and need to put that into effect." Blackadder spent nearly five years offshore completing his playing career before dipping his toes into the coaching circuit. His start, with the Scotland forward pack, was a huge slice of fortune as well as being a tough introduction for the former All Black captain. "It was the sort of chance many wait a lifetime for but I got the chance in 2004 to be part of the Six Nations. It was great. Then I was the director of rugby at Edinburgh where I learned a great deal about contracts and all the processes that go on in delivering a very solid rugby organisation. I think that is the hardest thing for players and coaches to learn in professional rugby," he said. "I made mistakes, just like everyone, but it also felt comfortable. It seemed to come naturally and I built on that personal development when I came home to be the director of rugby at Tasman. I felt more rounded, I felt more secure I guess you could say." Blackadder admitted he struggled at times with the administration of his sport, that part of his rugby education was not his strength. But, he had to immerse himself in those areas to understand everything about managing club rugby competitions to discussing all sorts of topics with the stakeholders.

"It is a great background and you have to remember about all these other things which go on outside the playing field," he said. "But I do see myself as a coach. I love it. I knew my weaknesses when I started and I think through the years I have become more rounded. If I had been thrown into this role five years ago I would have failed, I would not have succeeded. I have picked up so much in the last five years, I have had great support and you only know what you know. "It is hard to put the handbrake on when you get immersed in this job, when you are involved in something you really want to do." So how ambitious was Blackadder, how hard was his ego pushing him? "It's nothing like that. Don't confuse it with that," was his response. "It is one small step at a time because I am very aware of all the sorts of pitfalls there are, how difficult it is. You have to have a lot of self-awareness, that is critically important, and I listen an awful lot to all sorts of mentors." The job was hugely taxing on his family and while his wife and children were heavily indoctrinated in sport, they also brought a balance and perspective to his life. "My time management has got a great deal better, I have got my priorities sorted out and I have to make sure I stick to those. "We have lost eight All Blacks from last season but that sort of thing has been a constant down the years. We have to build and keep the machine rolling and this Crusaders organisation is used to that. It is not a burden it is an opportunity." The Crusaders used their recent practice game in Perth to hold a camp where they worked on their values, protocols and unity. They sailed on the Fremantle River, they competed against and with each other in a variety of tasks topped by their trial match against the Force.

The psychologist Dave Hatfield has been used to check the players, to stimulate their communication and create a stronger collective unity. "We are excited about this Super 14 season," Blackadder said. "There have been some tough economic times but we can't be worried about that. Instead we want to give our supporters and players something they can be proud of." wgray@thenational.ae