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Crusade On! by Matt McIlraith

It would be hard to imagine the annals of time - at least of rugby time - ever being able to forget the dominance of the Canterbury Crusaders in the various iterations of the ‘Super’ rugby franchise. No other team has demonstrated, year after year, the passion, discipline and success that this team has over the past 25 years and it is fitting to recognise such a position in this beautiful, thorough and engrossing narrative.

‘Crusade On!’ champions the Crusaders and captures what it is to be a top professional sports team in the modern era. It catalogues each of the individual campaigns (lovingly referred to as The First Crusade; The Second Crusade and so on…) with stories, perspectives, commentary, team lists, and statistics. It covers all bases with this regard resulting in casual readers finding some gems in the narrative, while armchair statisticians can investigate the data and establish exactly how many points legends like Carter, Mehrtens, Blackadder, McCaw etc etc racked up during their stay.

There have been 245 Crusaders in the 25 year history, and each of them have a nod in the appendix notes. It explores individual performances, collective triumphs and some of the typical locker room banter from a cast of recognisable players. These are the men who made the Crusaders less of a team, and more of a symbol of success.

Above all, the book celebrates what it is to be Cantanbrian. The team is really an extension of the region, and a show of force in time of pretty significant pain and suffering. Canterbury, as a region, gathered around the team and took them to their hearts as representative of what it means to collect oneself, stay calm, and carry on. For it is in the wake of the Christchurch Earthquake and the Mosque shootings that the team rallied and came out stronger.

In particular, it should be noted that the aftermath of the shooting in Christchurch is beautifully written about. Those initial and raw stages of response brings out a sense of companionship in the team and in the region. The ensuing media storm around the name is honestly and openly discussed, including the arguments for and against name and brand changes. A PR masterpiece at the time and wonderfully explained in the book.

At the end of the day: sport is a business. In the Crusaders case a very good business with enduring outcomes. There is a level of mental fitness as well as on-field magnetism within the team, and McIlraith explores some of these periphery elements with detail as the narrative unfolds. He describes the structure of the management, the importance of the extra elements such as conditioning and the overarching reach of the finances and administration.

And he should know, he was the team’s media manager in 2007 and 2008 and went on to be part of the All Blacks management, then onto the Wallabies management, thus making him the only media manager to be at two Rugby World Cups with two different teams. He has ghost written autobiographies for recognizable figures in the game, and been involved in historical books on the game. He is truly a knowledgeable and trustworthy source of information and exudes style in the writing.

Crusade On! is a wonderful sporting book that will become a classic due to its covering of a significant number of bases for fans of any description. This is a quality product which will look particularly vibrant on any coffee table belonging to fans of the Crusaders, or the sport of Rugby Union itself. Even as a Blues supporter, I cannot deny the impressiveness and true dominance that the Crusaders have shown in the Super Rugby competitions over the past 25 years.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Bateman Books, RRP $59.99


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