The Crusaders are setting up in Wollongong & Australian rugby might be the big winners

Newly appointed UOW Crusaders Global Rugby Program head coach Simon Kneebone believes he and his coaching staff will be able to replicate and implement the “Crusader way” into the new rugby academy at the University of Wollongong when it launches in February 2021. 

Kneebone will lead the professional rugby program, that will see aspiring young rugby players train 20 hours a week as part of the Crusaders system, while studying at the University of Wollongong or its affiliated college. 

UOW launched a similar Football program this year, in partnership with English Premier League club Tottenham Hot Spurs.

“The excitement for me is probably two fold,” Kneebone told Rugby News, shortly after being announced as head coach. 

“I’ve got a real passion for working with young people, helping them develop and helping shape their next couple of years.

“But I’m also really excited to work in an environment where you’ve got young people working in a fully professional Global Rugby Program, while they are also working really hard on their education. It’s a massive opportunity for the athletes that will be joining us.”

Kneebone has spent the past eight years coaching within the Crusaders system. He has coached the New Zealand U18s, led the Canterbury U19s side to several national titles and won a Major League Rugby title as head coach of the Seattle Seawolves.

“For me, young people in this age group have a really great mindset and they want to learn, they’re a sponge and all information is good information for them. Being able to work with these athletes as they hone their skills and get ready to take that next step is really exciting. 

“I’ve started having some chats with some of the guys that have applied already and the quality and the calibre of the athletes that want to be in the program is really high. It’s been pleasantly surprising to see the attitudes of these young people and their reasons for wanting to join the program.

“Education needs to be high on the list, as well as work ethic and it sounds like the applicants so far understand that, which is great to see.”

The Crusaders, arguably the most successful provincial rugby club of all time, have won 10 Super Rugby titles and shaped the careers of countless All Blacks. 

In fact, stats show that one in every three Crusaders players goes on to represent their country. 

Kneebone seems confident that he can replicate the values that drive the club’s success in Wollongong. 

“Crusaders is about connection. We want to be connected as a group, the coaches as well as the athletes and because of that, we all have to have the same mindset about where we are going and what we want to achieve. That’s really important. 

“Obviously the culture in the group back in Christchurch is really strong from the top down, on the field and off the field and that’s something we want to replicate over here in partnership with the University of Wollongong. 

“Everyone at the university seems to have the same mindset and they want to help develop great young people, so it’s exciting to be joining an environment like that.”

When asked about the specifics of the rugby program, Kneebone’s response gives an insight into why New Zealand rugby has thrived over the past two decades. 

“I’m passionate about making sure that we do the basic things very, very well,” he said. 

“We’ll work really hard with the athlete’s on their strength and conditioning and their technical and tactical understanding of the game. 

“Some of the players that I’ve spoken to have a rugby league background as well, so there is some great growth opportunities there. 

“Then we’ll work on the holistic side of things. Getting the athlete’s nutrition right and ensuring they have good balance in their lives, that’s something that is really important to me. 

“I truly believe that good kids make good rugby players and if we have the right attitude, then we will get there.”

Applications for the inaugural 2021 program, beginning in February, are still open and Kneebone said he can’t wait to start working with the first group. 

“It’s a real door opener I think. The athlete’s are going to learn pretty quickly what it takes to be involved in a professional rugby program and the mindset they need to succeed in that environment. They need to learn that from both an on field and off field perspective.

“It might not happen in the first week of term next year, but if we continue to work hard and stick at it, then I’m confident that we will get there.”

Click here to learn more about the UOW Crusaders Global Rugby Program or the apply now.