Canterbury Crusaders


During July and August 2009 I embarked on my own 6 week Professional Development Experience to the Southern Hemisphere. I spent 3 weeks in Brisbane, Australia and 3 weeks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

I decided to start this journey as I felt I needed to improve my coaching to help take it to the next level. Where best to go than two of the top rugby nations in the world…




On arrival in Christchurch I met up with John Haggart (International High Performance Unit Manager) who showed me what would be happening over the 3 week period. There was a mixture of 1st XV Team sessions, Academy sessions, Strength and Conditioning sessions, School, University and Community visits, 1-on-1 coach discussions and “live” NPC matches at the AMI Stadium.

The biggest thing I took away with me from my time with the Canterbury Crusaders was the willingness of the the coaches I met and spoke to, to share their ideas and knowledge…it was a complete breath of fresh air…Their willingness to discuss and question ideas was great to see and hear…The experiences with all the coaches who I had 1-on-1 chats with…most down the road at the cafe right next to the training ground…opened my eyes up to the power of sharing knowledge and information…and helping others…all in the aim of making people better coaches…for the good of the game of rugby union…

I have taken that forward in my own coaching…passing on my knowledge and experience to Jamie Taylor…who took the reigns from me as Director of Rugby at Denstone College…and I told him he can get in touch if he needs to ask any questions in the future…Being a sounding board for many of my former players who have gone into the world of teaching and coaching…and the many colleagues that I have coaching conversations/ discussions with on the various Social Media platforms…

Rob Penney (Head Coach Canterbury NPC)
Rob Penney (Head Coach Canterbury NPC)

From my discussion with Rob…in the cafe down the road…I took away with me the principle of ‘attack a weak seam’…somewhere along the opposition defensive line there will be a player that is a ‘weak link’…an injured player…a slow player…a less mobile player…a less agile player…that the attacking team could target…isolate…put extra pressure on…to increase their chances of breaking down the defensive line and bursting through the space…whole…gap…to gain ground or even better score a try…

There are many ways that the attacking side could exploit the ‘weak seam’. The easiest and most obvious option is to set up a ‘move’ that would pit your fastest…most agile player against their slowest…least mobile player. The chances of this being successful are very high. Having decoy runners that could potentially cause confusion in the defensive line is another possibility that could open up a hole to exploit. Using different running lines…a switch or dummy switch…will again create the chance of opening a gap between the ‘weak link’ and the next defender inside or outside the player.

One of the hardest challenges in executing the ‘attack a weak seam’ principle…are the players recognising who the ‘weak link’ is…and where the weak seam is. This can be worked on in training by using ‘Conditioned Games’…where you condition the defence to simulate a ‘weak link’ in the defensive line…thus creating a ‘weak seam’ for the attacking team to try and identity and execute their decision(s)…

How do you condition the defence in this ‘Conditioned Game’ to provide plenty of opportunities for the players to have a go at the ‘attack a weak seam’ principle…?

Put 4 to 6 players (depending on the number of players per team) into a brightly coloured different colour bib to the rest of the team…when their team is on defence you can create 2 options:-

Option 1: Players link up in pairs and stay linked up for the whole of that defensive set…where the pair will be less mobile and will create bigger spaces to attack into…when their team wins a turnover they break up and attack.

Option 2: You assign the same role (increases chances of success and repetition) or a different role to each player (wearing the brightly coloured different colour bib) simulating e.g. a player with an injured shoulder…a player limping…a player walking in the defensive line…a player with his hands on his knees “knackered”.

If you do not provide the opportunities to practise this principle in a ‘Conditioned Game’ in training…how do you expect your players to execute it in the high pressure environment of a full-on game…?

During my observations of the team training sessions I noticed a significant common theme amongst them…The skill of practising ‘decision-making’…in different game-like situations and scenarios…If you never practise ‘decision-making’ in training…how on earth would you expect your players to make the right decision…at the right time…under the most pressure…with a ‘real’ opposition against you…?

These ‘decision-making’ observations were another turning point in my coaching career…they ignited a spark inside…that would set me on the crusade on the imagination and the creativity of numerous ‘Conditioned Games’ and drills for the ‘Part’ bit in the ‘Whole-Part-Whole’ process…that would put players in game-like situations…under realistic pressure…making decisions…

Tabai Matson (Assistant Coach Canterbury NPC)
Tabai Matson (Assistant Coach Canterbury NPC)

My discussions with Tabai…again in the cafe down the road…evolved around ‘backs moves’ and how to challenge the opposition defensive line from scrums, in particular, and lineouts.

Hand on heart…I suggested the formation below…as an attacking threat from a scrum…the ‘Double Post’ formation…in August 2009 in the cafe at the end of the road by the Canterbury Crusaders training ground.

My diagrams and notes from my notebook about the 'Double Post' I showed Tabai...
My diagrams and notes from my notebook about the ‘Double Post’ I showed Tabai…

We had a really good discussion about the principles of the move…what the formation was…and the running lines the players would run. The principle stems from my time playing Madden NFL on the Playstation with the wide-receivers (WR) running a ‘post’ route in one of the passing plays…the WR would run in a straight line for a set distance…after the straight run the WR would then side-step to run a 45 degree angle in another straight line.

Double Post discussed with Tabai in August 2009...
Double Post Formation…as discussed with Tabai in August 2009…

Fast-forward 4 years and I would see the formation being used by the Crusaders in the 2013 Super Rugby competiton against The Chiefs…with Tabai now as the Crusaders backs coach…where both sets of players would run simultaneously. Then at the right moment the players would split providing 2 options for the ball carrier to pass to…thus confusing the defence…”who do I take…?”…causing hesitation…which gives more time to the attack…less time for the defence…thus creating a bigger hole in the defensive line…resulting in the ball carrier passing to the player running in a space…as the defender had taken the other attacking runner.

Dave Hewitt Crusaders Scrum Coach
Dave Hewitt (Crusaders Scrum Coach)

My discussions…again in the cafe down the road next to the table where Mike Cron (NZ Scrum Coach) was talking with Ben and Owen Franks…with Dave and my observations of his coaching methods…on the training paddock at Rugby Park…were a fantastic experience…and a real game changer in my knowledge and understanding of scrums and scrum coaching…

To help me understand the mechanics and dynamics of the scrum he used the small coffee stick stirrers that you would find in any coffee shop…anywhere in the world…What he showed me made perfect sense, and what he explained to me was very logical.

I would have never imagined that I would learn so much about the mechanics of the scrum with very small, very simple, basic pieces of wood…the coffee stick stirrers…!

Seeing his coaching methods was an excellent experience too. He broke down the ‘pack’ to mini-units…front-row…2nd row…back-row…left-hand-side…right-hand-side…and worked on the same ‘core’ individual technique with all the players. He used 1v2…2v3…and 2&2 v. 2&2…as ways for players to practise their application of the technique under stress and pressure.

The biggest thing I took away with me was that ‘quality’ training…’purposeful’ training…is far better then ‘quantity’ training.

This was most evident when I returned back to the UK and my 1st XVs only did 10-20 minutes of scrum training in a 7 day cycle on a Saturday morning…only hitting a maximum of 5-10 hits as a full 8 against a Rhino Premier Sled. Our scrum was never out powered and we never lost a ball against the head. I used the sled to help with engagement timing and co-ordination of the ‘pack’ working together…with a loose-head or tight-head wheel…so everyone knew their roles and how to apply pressure through our scrum onto the opposition pack.

Jamie Hamilton (Crusaders Performance Analyst)
Jamie Hamilton (Crusaders Performance Analyst)

My discussions with Jamie evolved around the process involved in his role…Obviously one of his main roles is to code each game…tagging events…e.g. scrums, lineouts, rucks, mauls, penalties, tries…and players doing certain actions…e.g. passing, tackling…so that players and coaches are able to be more efficient when reviewing the game back during the week…as they are able to “tick” boxes as to what they would like to watch and review…e.g. If you would like to see all the scrums…you would “tick” the scrum box. Linked to this…he creates short clips that collates for example all of the ‘lineout’ videos so that the players and/or coaches can view them…At the end of a game…as the home team…Jamie would give several copies of the match DVD to his opposite number. Another very good example of the openness and sharing culture in New Zealand…

The other area Jamie spends his time on is mentoring and coaching the ‘scrum-halves’ across the whole franchise…I was able to watch him coach the Canterbury 9s after one of their main training sessions in the week. It was fascinating to see the attention to detail the ‘drills’ had…short sets and reps of the ones the players wanted to do (work-ons)…covering a variety of aspects of scrum-half play…While I was there…R80Rugby were actually doing the recording for their ‘Coaching Video Series’…The DVD below is an excellent resource and shows what I witnessed during my time watching Jamie coach the scrum-halves…

An overview of the Crusaders Series ‘Halfback Passing Drills’ DVD can be viewed on the R80 YouTube Channel here:-

The Crusaders Series ‘Halfback Passing Drills’ DVD can be purchased from the following link:-

Matt Sexton (Academy Manager Canterbury Crusaders)
Matt Sexton (Academy Manager Canterbury Crusaders, 2005 to 2011)

My discussion with Matt was fascinating…we delved into what the Crusaders franchise looked for in a player…what is it that makes a Crusader player…Matt showed and explained to me the Talent v. Character quadrant…He explained to me where the Crusaders players would be…He also showed me where the other franchises players’ would be…There was a significant difference where you would find most of the Crusaders players compared to the Blues and Hurricanes players…Then when you compare the success of the 3 different Super Rugby franchises…the results are staggering…

*Knowing the background as to why the Chiefs won back-to-back Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013 recently…there is a significant factor that has led to 9 Super Rugby titles and 4 runner-up places…13 out of 18 competitions…going to the Crusaders and the Chiefs franchise. Players are identified/selected because of their ‘Character’…

*In October 2012 I attended the Wayne Smith Conference on ‘Creating a World Class Attack’ hosted by Independent Coach Education at the Kassam Stadium, Oxford, England. At the end of his presentation he shared some of the secrets the Chiefs did in their quest to become the Super Rugby Champions.

I have written a Blog on the major theme that Matt discussed with me…the ‘Talent v. Character’ quadrant…The Blog can be viewed here:-

The Crusaders franchise carry out several psychological tests…They have a partnership with a Sport Psychologist…on the players that they are monitoring…to see if they have the characteristics to make them become a Crusaders player…A sign of the attention to detail they carry out in the pursuit “TO BE THE MOST SUCCESSFUL AND MOST RESPECTED RUGBY ORGANISATION IN THE WORLD.”

I also witnessed the Canterbury Crusaders scouting network in action…they watch Metro club Senior matches…Metro club Colts matches…Canterbury Representative matches…plus matches in the Canterbury Country region…It feels as though no stone is left unturned to find the next Dan Carter or the next Richie McCaw…

I saw one of the scouts turn up at the start of an U19 Metro club game…He stood at the end of the pitch and just videoed one particular player for half of the game…For the second half he focused on another player end on also…I then drove across town to watch a schoolboy game later in the afternoon…the same scout turned up also…and he carried out the same exercise on two more players…The intriguing thing was that later during the week…one night in the training ground offices…one of the schoolboy players turned up…The scout asked the boy to watch the videos clips from the previous Saturday…once the player had observed the clips and made some notes…the scout then sat down with the player and they watched and discussed the clips together…

It was fascinating to observe the work that goes on behind the scenes to help identify and develop the future Crusader players to continue the Crusade…

Individual Scrum Sled and Kicking Net
Individual Scrum Sled and Kicking Net

One of the intriguing experiences during my time with the coaching staff at the Crusaders was the attention to detail of individual skills development…The key facilitator for this is the equipment available to the players…to use during and after the main training sessions…and in the players’ own time…Two of the examples are shown above…and individual ‘scrum sled’ and a kicking net.

Dan Carter Goal Kicking
Dan Carter Goal Kicking

I was lucky enough to watch one of the greatest players in the game train…Dan Carter was coming back from the injury he sustained playing for Perpignan during the 2008/09 season…therefore he was completing his re-habilitation programme with the Canterbury NPC team…I witnessed him working on his strength and conditioning in the gym…following his proprioception training programme to the letter…and I watched him practise his goal kicking from different positions on the training paddock after the main training session had finished and all the other players had gone back into the changing rooms…It was all about the process and the routine from what I saw…and to round it off I saw him play against Waikato at the AMI Stadium…a man of the match performance…Two weeks later he represented the All Blacks in the Tri-Nations against South Africa.

Christ College 1st XV
Christ College 1st XV

I observed coaching sessions at Christchurch Boys High School and St. Bede’s College plus coach discussions at Christ’s College and St. Andrew’s College. I watched the local derby game of St. Bede’s College v. Christ’s College and I also watched the Press Cup Final between St. Bede’s College and Nelson College which was played at Rugby Park.

The Hakas at the Press Cup Final...
The Hakas at the Press Cup Final…

I witnessed nothing that I had not done myself with my own teams or seen or heard before. The standard of the rugby I watched was very good…the teams were very well prepared with solid set-pieces…the biggest difference I saw between the New Zealand schools and the UK schools was the athletic ability of the NZ players and their willingness to look for spaces more and play an offloading game compared to many UK schools I have seen.

Captain's Run (Friday morning)
Captain’s Run (Friday morning)

The culmination of my time with the Canterbury NPC squad was being invited by Head Coach Rob Penney to join his coaching team in the coach’s box for the Air New Zealand Cup (NPC) game against Tasman. It was a great experience to see what goes on behind-the-scenes during a game. Rob Penny, Tabai Matson and Jamie Hamilton sat side-by-side with Jamie annotating “live” the events going on in the game and Rob and Tabai communicating messages with the water carriers and medical staff at the appropriate times. Jamie had a direct feed into the TV camera trucks so that they could see all the camera angles simultaneously and the speakers allowed the coaches to hear everything the referee was saying to the players and the reasons for the decison he was making.

I would make the observastion that being so high up and away from the action would help you as a coach to make more informed observations/decisions about your team…As you are away from the emotions of the game…you can take ‘a step back’…and you can see the bigger picture more. But I would say it would be much harder to get the feel for a game…see which way the game is going to go…

The view from the Coach's Box...
The view from the Coach’s Box…

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