Sports

Crusader Man: What to make of Todd Blackadder’s Super Rugby coaching career

Todd Blackadder is leaving to coach Aviva Premiership side Bath after eight seasons in charge of the Crusaders. Will his tenure be remembered as a success? Scotty Stevenson looks back on the career of a Crusader Man. 

Todd Blackadder

Langford’s Store is rusting away in the summer heat of Golden Bay. The remaining paint clings to the rough-sawn weatherboards, mismatched chairs under a bowed verandah roof provide day trippers and hikers with some respite from the sun, kids hunt through the bric-a-brac and feast on ice creams and dollar bags of lollies.

The old store is a tourist haunt these days, fifteen minutes inland by dirt road from the small town of Collingwood which clings to the edge of the Bay at the top of the South Island and provides a departing point for the big four wheel drive trucks that ferry passengers out to the far reaches of Farewell Spit. Collingwood is the end of the line. It is also where Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder feels most at home.

Golden Bay is not the kind of place you simply drop by. It is one road in and the same road out and that road goes up and over and down the Takaka Hill – or just ‘the hill’ as the locals call it – in a seemingly endless and definitely nauseating series of switchbacks. People come to Golden Bay for the Abel Tasman National Park, or to walk the Heaphy Track, or just to drop out and bake gluten-free organic almond flour cakes and smoke copious amounts of herb.

Over summer, the towns of Takaka and Collingwood are overrun by young German tourists who all look like they got dressed in the dark and then got too stoned to care. They eventually end up at the local New Year’s Eve music festival once known as The Gathering and hallucinate their way through the rest of their time in New Zealand. Some of them never leave.

The tourists are welcome in the Bay – they come for summer, stay awhile, and leave with lighter wallets and deeper tans. Those that remain are hardy folk. Farmers and artisans mainly, cow cockies and mussel growers, and orchardists and painters of birds and watercolour landscapes. The winters can be cold and brutal, and the big rivers flood regularly. Once, says Todd Blackadder, the river flooded so badly that cows were washed downstream and later found stuck in the branches of trees. They say the water level rose ten metres that day. In anyone’s book, that’s a bloody big flood.

As a young fella, Todd Blackadder was a Glenmark man but he moved north to work and played for Collingwood. He used to head out around the tents and the caravans with his team mates selling raffle tickets for a pig in a wheelbarrow, that sort of thing. He would drop in at Tukurua Bay and sell tickets to a young lad called Wyatt Crockett, whose parents ran the camp ground. Last weekend, Crockett made his 20th trip to South Africa to play rugby for Todd Blackadder’s Crusaders. They are similar men: quiet, stoic, often criticised, unwavering, isolationist.

He was never a camera-time player, Blackadder. Though he eventually headed back down to Canterbury and led both the provincial team and the Crusaders to titles, and though he was deeply admired for his tenacity and commitment, his elevation to test status was not rapid. He would play three full seasons of mid-week fixtures for the national side before finally making his full international debut for the All Blacks in 1998. In 2000 he would be captain of the side for the season, and it would be his last in the jersey. All up he mustered 12 test appearances, and a total of 25 games, 14 of them calling the shots.

Todd Blackadder playing for the All Blacks against the Wallabies in 2000. (Photo: Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT)

Todd Blackadder playing for the All Blacks against the Wallabies in 2000. (Photo: Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT)

As with so many players, it was in provincial and franchise rugby that Todd Blackadder stood out, as much as Todd Blackadder ever really stood out. He played 121 games for Canterbury, spanning an entire decade, and a further 71 for the Crusaders. He was appointed captain of the Crusaders in 1997 after the side had finished bottom of the heap in the maiden season the year before. from 1998 to 2000 he led the side to three successive championships.

Each time he lifted the trophy it was with no fanfare. There were no wild gestures, no screaming at the cameras. He simply said what he had to say, flashed his shy and friendly smile, raised the trophy with a humble awkwardness and headed back to his team. They played for him. He played for them.

Blackadder left New Zealand rugby in 2001 and returned to the scene only in 2008 when he took the Tasman coaching job. The fledgling union would take a number of years to find its feet, but Blackadder’s already seemed to be itchy. The Crusaders job beckoned, the Robbie Deans era was coming to a close (and would ultimately end in another title triumph, led by Blackadder clone Reuben Thorne) and Blackadder was adjudged the man for the job. Everything pointed to a continued run of success for the most successful team in Super Rugby history.

Eight seasons later, the Crusaders are still waiting to win another title. They have come close, and they have only once missed the playoffs (in 2015), but it never felt like it was enough – for the fans, for the franchise, or for the coach.

Throughout his reign Blackadder faced criticism for being too conservative, for developing a robotic structure that pulverised teams more than it ever electrified fans; for relying too much on substance over style. Supporters have long wondered why he wasn’t able to lead the team to a championship, given the quality of players at his disposal. When you can boast a team with the likes of Corey Flynn, Crockett, Andy Ellis, Dan Carter, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, and R H McCaw, it is probably a fair question – or is it?

There have been suggestions that Blackadder battled with the ‘team within the team’ mentality of some of the senior figures, for whom All Blacks rugby meant more than Crusaders rugby did. That kind of mentality is anathema to a coach like Blackadder. He agonised over selection decisions, knowing that he had to put the team before the player, but also knowing that if he left out certain players, the team would suffer. In the end, he took culture over strategy, which he should have been lauded for, but rarely was.

Another point to make is that many of those star players were not always available to Blackadder. Many of the All Blacks were granted late return passes to franchise play while some were of such high value to the national side that they were rested periodically as a precaution when other players may well have been willing to play through the pain. Blackadder privately harboured these frustrations.

Yes, Blackadder is guilty of one thing: holding on to a belief that no one is above the team, not even when that person’s talent transcends the game itself. That stand takes a certain type of conviction, one that is rare in modern sport.

And titles are now a rare commodity in Crusader land, too. There was the epic 2011 campaign when Christchurch suffered its tragic earthquake and the team somehow managed to make it all the way around the world and through to the final in Brisbane. They should have won that game. The turning point came when Richie McCaw chose a shot at goal after the Crusaders scrum had destroyed the Reds on their own goal line. It was a conservative play, a foot off the throat. The Reds rallied after that let off and emerged victorious on a humid Queensland evening.

There was the final in 2014 when the Crusaders had the game in the bag against the Waratahs and Craig Joubert penalised McCaw on full-time and Bernard Foley kicked the winning goal. That one hurt for Blackadder. His former Assistant coach Darryl Gibson was in the Waratahs box. There was no secret that Gibson resented Blackadder’s decision to axe him from the Crusaders staff. He enjoyed the revenge.

Todd Blackadder and Justin Marshall after the Crusaders' 1997 Super Rugby final win. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Todd Blackadder and Justin Marshall after the Crusaders’ 1997 Super Rugby final win. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Over the final two weeks of his time in charge, he was forced to sit back and watch his boys get crushed by both the Hurricanes and the Lions. They were probably the two toughest weeks he has had with the Crusaders – tougher even than the weeks following those two grand final losses. At least then he could regroup and come back to fight another day. This time there is no re-thinking, no new season to prepare for. This is the full stop on his Crusaders career. Todd Blackadder can be accused of many things, but going out with a whimper was never his style. He will be hurting.

There will be those who condemn Todd Blackadder’s term as Crusaders coach as a failure. There have been some within his own organisation who have long called for him to be replaced, even though he could argue he has been the most consistently successful Super Rugby coach of the last eight years. There will be others who may argue that the Blackadder reign and its failure to capture a title is evidence the Crusaders need to start thinking outside their own region, to import some fresh ideas. That won’t be happening any time soon, given Blackadder’s former teammate Scott Robertson is set to take the job in the 2017 season.

Kinder folk will say that he has done his best to maintain the Crusaders’ core values in the face of a changing game in which regional allegiances mean far less than they once did. The Crusaders have always circled the wagons. That much hasn’t changed under Blackadder. When you watched him coach, or heard stories of the themes he invoked season after season, you could tell that everything he did came first from the very best of places: from the heart.

Maybe it’s like this. Todd Blackadder’s time in charge of the Crusaders was very good, but never quite exceptional. That is, rightly or wrongly, exactly as he is remembered as a player.

He once said as long as he could see the desire and the effort from his players, that was enough. If they didn’t show either of those two things, they weren’t Crusader men. He is a Crusader man. One of the finest. And over some summer in the future, if you ever find yourself at the end of the sealed road, at the top of the South Island, you can take a left onto the loose metal and wind your way through the baked countryside to Langford’s Store in Bainham. Sit awhile and have a cup of tea and, if you wait long enough, you just might see a lone lanky, silver haired man jogging past you, sweating in the summer heat.

It’ll be Todd Blackadder, running home, to his place in Golden Bay. His place in the sun.

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