WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The Canterbury Crusaders have long been seen as a brutal, uncompromising and brilliant side but few would have called the Super Rugby titans ‘fun’ until breakdancing coach Scott Robertson took the reins last year.
In his first season in charge, Robertson ended eight years of frustration by delivering an eighth Super Rugby title with an away win at the Lions, celebrating the feat on the Ellis Park turf with a routine boasting a head-spin and a caterpillar roll.
Rugby League Park might be in for a similar treat on Saturday when the Crusaders host the Johannesburg-based side at their Christchurch stronghold in a repeat of last year’s final.
Few, barring the Lions themselves, give the South Africans any hope of upsetting a team whose dominance has echoes of the golden years when they claimed seven titles from 1998 to 2008.
A former All Blacks loose forward capped 23 times, Robertson featured in the first four of those triumphs during his playing days under Wayne Smith and Robbie Deans.
Hailed for his exuberance and high-intensity approach, he claimed to have earned his nickname “Razor” after boasting that his shoulder had cut Wallabies centre Pat Howard in half in a clash against the ACT Brumbies in 1996.
Despite his pedigree and a coaching CV featuring three titles with Canterbury’s provincial side, along with a World Cup win with New Zealand’s under-20 side, the straggly-haired surfer from the Bay of Plenty seemed a left-field choice to replace the departing Todd Blackadder at the end of 2016.
Blackadder’s tenure featured two finals, four semi-finals but no trophies, and Robertson, a coach with no Super Rugby experience, was entrusted with ending the drought.
It took little time for him to build a deep bond with an All Blacks-laden squad which had suffered a few knocks to its confidence in the last couple of years under Blackadder.
Happy to leave some of the more technical aspects of coaching to his assistants, Robertson focused on the motivation side, seeking to infuse his players with the same energy that propelled his own coaching.
A meeting at a pre-season camp where the players hammered out their goals for the 2017 campaign ended with a jam session after the coach unveiled a team band.
Pranks, singing contests and a more welcoming reception to the families of the players around the club have also marked Robertson’s time in charge.
“I’m not big on fear ruling, I want to make sure that we enjoy it, we have fun, and people want to come to work and engage to be better,” Robertson said after his team roared to a 12-0 start in 2017.
“I always theme my campaigns, always make sure we connect as a group every day in a different way.”
Playing the Crusaders has been anything but fun, however, as the Wellington Hurricanes would attest after their 30-12 semi-final hiding in Christchurch last week.
With a pack made up mostly of test forwards and a potent backline featuring the vastly improved winger George Bridge and centre Jack Goodhue, the Crusaders are equally comfortable playing with width or keeping the game tight.
Like Robertson’s championship breakdancing, it’s not always pretty but fans are unlikely to judge the coach too harshly for the aesthetics if the Crusaders end up hoisting the Super Rugby trophy for the ninth time on Saturday.
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Nick Mulvenney