Crusaders CEO on COVID, Australian rugby and the short and long term future of Super Rugby 

COVID-19 has disrupted sport globally like very few crises before it and no organisation, no matter how successful is exempt. 

The Crusaders had lost just one of their opening six Super Rugby matches earlier this year and were on track to possibly add an 11th title to a trophy cabinet in Canterbury that must surely be running out of room. 

But COVID-19 changed all of that and the Crusaders, like the rest of us, are doing their best to make it through. 

“It’s been a challenging period, that’s for sure,” CEO Colin Mansbridge told Rugby News from his home office in Christchurch. 

“We’ve got a very quality management team here and they’ve done very well to keep the players and our community engaged through all of this, but it hasn’t been easy.”

After an early hiccup that saw several Crusaders players condemned for breaking strict lockdown rules by kicking a ball around at a local park, Mansbridge said he was pleased with how the organisation has handled the pandemic. 

“In some respects it was a negative for the club, but it probably helped educate the wider community. We probably wouldn’t want to take that role on again but that helped people realise how serious the situation was. 

“Internally, we’ve tried not to change our schedules at all and have just changed our method of delivery. 

“From the CEO to the management group, we’re having daily catch ups over Zoom rather than in person and it’s the same with the team, the coaches and players are meeting just as regularly as they usually would. 

“I was in a catch up earlier today and if you listened in on it, you probably would have thought we were all sitting around a table together.”

While the players physical training has been limited due to strict restrictions across New Zealand, Mansbridge said the players and coaches have been “connecting” in other ways. 

“I’ve watched the high performance staff run game analysis sessions on clubs and sports and leagues from right around the world and they would never usually have the time to do that. 

“From a personal development perspective, it’s some of the best stuff we’ve done. 

“Our strength and conditioning and medical staff have been forced to do everything by distance, so that’s been a little problematic, but we’ve still been able to maintain the various testing we do with the players and they’ve been great at reporting in on that. 

Mansbridge said the Christchurch community were desperate for rugby to return as soon as possible but acknowledged this season will look quite different to how it was initially planned. 

“You hear all the criticism about Super Rugby and the way the game is these days, but if you ask any critics in the media or down the street, they’re desperate to play rugby in just about any form. 

“They’d watch a team of ants play another at the moment and I think the break has made people realise just how much they love and rely on the game. 

“We’ll have to play in our national bubbles this year, I think that’s fairly obvious. Even a Trans Tasman Super comp this year is going to be tough considering how things are looking at the moment and because of that, we’re fairly advanced in our planning of a domestic competition with our five Super Rugby sides playing one another in a 10 round competition.”

“It’d be great if the winners could link up and play against Australian teams later in the year but I think that’s going to be very difficult. 

“I certainly think there’s a strong possibility that we may be able to play a Bledisloe Cup series of some sorts later in the year though depending on the quarantine requirements in both countries.”

Mansbridge said it’s unlikely that crowds will be able to attend domestic matches in New Zealand in 2020, which will put further strain on the businesses bottom line. 

“We’ve got a commitment to deliver content to our broadcaster and if we can’t deliver that, we’ll have a more significant revenue issue than we’ve currently got. 

“We also need to provide return for our sponsors and ideally that includes rugby, not just the off the field stuff we’re doing with them at the moment. Gate takings are important but it’s not the only revenue stream we have to consider.”

While New Zealand Rugby has signed a broadcast deal that includes a Super Rugby competition until 2025, Mansbridge acknowledged that the “rules have changed” to an extent in recent months. 

To many, tightening links with Rugby Australia might seem like a risky move considering the organisations recent on and off field troubles, but Mansbridge sees things differently. 

“I don’t think Australian rugby is anywhere near as bad as everyone makes it out to be,” he said. 

“I know Rob Penney very well, he’s a personal friend and talking to him, as well as those at the University of Wollongong, what’s clear is that club footy in both Sydney and Brisbane is as strong as it’s ever been. 

“It’s clearly still a popular game but the connection between club rugby and the professional game is very interesting. If I think about the Crusaders, we’ve got very close connections with each of our provincial clubs. 

“Even though we’re seperate organisations, we collaborate very effectively and I think that’s where Australian rugby needs to get to. 

“I also think if you look at the Crusaders athletes that come into our academy, most of them come here straight from school and they are immediately linked with a provincial club. They are part of the Crusaders academy but they play all their footy in local club competitions and then maybe in the Mitre 10 Cup. 

“They’re Crusaders, but they don’t debut for us until they’ve come through quite a development pathway. 

“I reckon that’s the bit that’s missing in Australia.”

With interest in Super Rugby declining on both sides of the Tasman sea, a change to the current competition structure in the years ahead doesn’t seem unrealistic and Mansbridge acknowledged there were a number of options on the table. 

“We haven’t directly spoken with Twiggy Forrest but I know New Zealand Rugby has. We’ve had a number of conversations with Global Rapid Rugby though about the potential franchises that might go in to that competition down the track. 

“From my understanding of Twiggy’s vision, he wants to take the game to a bigger audience particularly in Asia so I think there could be room for several tiers in that competition. You don’t want teams winning games by 50-60 points, you want it to be competitive and it’s even better if all those tiered competitions play in the same time zone.

“We’ve probably been talking with Global Rapid Rugby for close to 18 months but again any changes there will come from SANZAR and New Zealand Rugby, not us. 

“I certainly think Super Rugby could evolve though.”

In Australia, the Crusaders will launch a dedicated rugby academy in conjunction with the University of Wollongong in 2021. 

UOW approached Mansbridge and the Crusaders in 2019 about setting up an academy similar to the university’s Football program, run in partnership with English Premier League club Tottenham Hot Spurs. 

“The University of Wollongong approached us after initially speaking to some rugby club’s in the UK and we quickly worked out that our two organisations share a lot of values,” Mansbridge said. 

“We didn’t really talk about how many trophies we’d won or any of the on field stuff, we spoke about our culture and how we’ve structured our academies in New Zealand and they liked the sound of it. 

“The more time we spent with them, the better we got along and I think the feeling was mutual.”

Mansbridge said the purpose of the academy was not to poach players out of Australian rugby, but to grow the game in both countries and spread what those in Christchurch call “the Crusader way.”

“The first and most important point for those looking at joining the academy, is that we think better people make better rugby players. 

“The boys and girls in this academy will spend as much time with our personal development managers as they will with their coaches on the field because we unashamedly focus on creating better people who then become better players. 

“Nutrition, personal development, mental skills, all of those things will play a key part in the program because we think when you get them right, results tend to take care of themselves.”

“We also want to be connected to local clubs in the region so that the academy players can play in local competitions and if that occurs, we think those clubs and rugby in the region will improve as well.”

Click here to find out more about the UOW Crusaders Global Rugby Academy or contact [email protected].