Why Blues v Crusaders is extra spicy in 2019

Radio Sport, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Saturday, 16 February 2019, 3:55PM
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson (left) and Blues coach Leon MacDonald (right). (Photos/ Photosport)
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson (left) and Blues coach Leon MacDonald (right). (Photos/ Photosport)

In the long minutes before kick-off tonight, Blues head coach Leon MacDonald and his Crusaders counterpart Scott Robertson will meet on the Eden Park pitch.

They will shake hands and make a bit of small talk and then they'll wish each other all the best and return to watching their teams prepare to do battle in an opening match which will help set the tone for their respective seasons.

It's what professional rugby coaches do and as good men and good coaches it's difficult to see them deviating from the tradition, but there is no doubt that there will be extra motivation for both. MacDonald was Robertson's assistant as the Crusaders stormed to the Super Rugby title in 2017 before he left Christchurch, to spend more time with his family in Blenheim, and then signed with the Blues less than a year later.

To say eyebrows were raised at the Crusaders' Rugby Park headquarters after MacDonald signed to be Tana Umaga's assistant would be a big understatement but things change quickly in professional sport, and it's clear MacDonald saw a quicker pathway to a head coaching role in Auckland.

Indeed, that was borne out months later when the new Blues board effectively demoted Umaga and installed MacDonald as head coach.

Now, in a brilliant piece of scheduling, they face each other in their opening match of the season. Is it personal? Probably not. Is there extra motivation for victory? Probably. Are they similar personalities? Absolutely not, but they are cut from the same coaching cloth.

"We haven't talked at all actually," MacDonald said after his team's final significant training run of the week, when asked if any texts had been sent to the man known as "Razor". "We've both been pretty busy and it's been a pretty hectic pre-season with a lot going on. I'm sure we'll touch base before kick-off."

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson (left) and Blues coach Leon MacDonald (right). Photos/ Photosport

MacDonald is known as "Rangi" after the knockabout little character in the Footrot Flatscartoon for his toughness and disregard shown to his wellbeing during his 122 games for the Crusaders and 56 tests for the All Blacks. He was never anything less than brave or fully committed as a fullback and that intensity remains as a coach.

Robertson, the former Crusaders and All Blacks loose forward, is a little different as evidenced by his breakdancing celebrations and general laidback approach to life but he is just as intense as MacDonald when it comes to the preparation and wellbeing of his players and the thirst for success.

In this they are very similar, their methods shaped by former mentor Robbie Deans whose legacy continues in the form of so many of his former players coaching at this level including Aaron Mauger, Mark Hammett, Daryl Gibson, Tabai Matson and Todd Blackadder.

"The way you coach is made up of years and years of playing with different teams and under different coaches and I think you form your own formula from that," MacDonald said.

"There have been things I've learned as a Crusaders player and with my time coaching there but also my time with Tasman as well.

"I'm very fortunate – I've got a lot of good mentors who I talk to regularly and I'm always trying to improve as a coach. You end up with your own formula in the end."

Will MacDonald's knowledge of the Crusaders and their methods count for anything? To an extent, but he can only do so much.

"I understand the way they play pretty well, obviously. I spent a bit of time down there so you use your knowledge in any game to give yourself an advantage to win it. We're doing our own thing here and concentrating on that. This group of players are very different; they're aspirational and very keen to do well."

For Robertson, who was happy to hype up the clash between the pair, the same applies. He said he predicted that MacDonald would select Ma'a Nonu and TJ Faiane in the midfield and he's also likely to know what sort of approach the Blues will take when the game kicks off.

"It's good to get the hype… it's been a tough few years for them, which is pretty clear, and that's why there's that sense of hope coming on," Robertson said. "It's great, the hype around this game – signing Ma'a and the changing of Leon [to head coach] – it's good for New Zealand rugby and it gets people watching footy."


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