Crusaders lose phantom cog Lancaster

Steve Lancaster's role at the Crusaders could have been likened to one of those shadowy figures in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather.

While Lancaster, who leaves Christchurch on Monday to begin his new job with Rugby Canada, spent much of his six years in the background he still wielded considerable power within the organisation.

Although some would have recognised him as the lock who represented the Crusaders between 1996-2000, they would have had less luck hearing him speak to the media.

Instead he let chief executive Hamish Riach, head coach Todd Blackadder and the players publicly represent the franchise.

Officially, Lancaster wore the title of Crusaders high performance manager and that also required him to run Canterbury's professional arm.

Such a title could mean anything in today's corporate gobbledegook, but Lancaster was no paper shuffler who sat back and smiled benignly at the office wallpaper.

While Blackadder selected his players and applied the sales patter to convince newcomers why they join the Crusaders, Lancaster was intimately involved in finalising contracts.

If the Crusaders wanted to research ways to improve or develop their business they paid for Lancaster to go offshore and bring back the knowledge.

He was also involved in overseeing the medical programmes, logistics, performance analysis and player welfare.

When Blackadder revamped his coaching staff, and eventually lost backs coach Daryl Gibson to the Waratahs after he was downgraded to a defensive role, Lancaster oversaw the process and was also involved in the appointment of Scott Robertson as Canterbury head coach.

"Contracting was a big part of the job.

"I also had to make sure the systems and structures were humming along to allow people to do their jobs well. And there were things like working out strategies with the coaches."

Lancaster majored in commerce at university and later gained a diploma in commerce and organisational management.

Working through the vital but dry task of contracting was one he "at times loved and at others hated".

The NZRU's decision to bring in "equalisation" - in a couple of seasons they would like to see all five franchises have a similar amount to spend on players - and working together the separate budgets in the Crusaders and Canterbury were part of the complicated process.

"Contracting had its challenges - it can be both tactical and strategic. One of the best parts is when you hear the likes of (new Crusaders lock) Dom Bird say he wanted to stay at the Crusaders to learn off All Blacks like Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano. That was music to my ears."

Unable to offer all their players competitive packages means the Crusaders management ask prospective recruits to look beyond the dollar signs; instead they market themselves around the premise they can offer internationals to learn from an outfit that expects and breeds success.

The decision to move to Canada, he said, followed some fitful sleeps, deep discussions with wife Jen and the acceptance his two children won't join him on Vancouver Island, where Rugby Canada are setting up a new "centre of excellence" base, until the New Year.

Lancaster's job is to oversee the national programme, the high-performance centre and focus on the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro where sevens will made its debut.

Unlike New Zealand where the top-tier players are contracted as professionals, the Canadians are best described as semi-professional. Because the country is so vast - it will take Lancaster almost six hours to fly to his head office in Ontario - the domestic competition struggles.

But with the central government having a carded athlete system and sevens being introduced to the 2016 Olympics, Lancaster is optimistic the sport can grow.

Optimistic about the Crusaders' chances of breaking their four-year title drought next year, Lancaster leaves satisfied: "This has been a great place to be involved in. I feel like I have left the house in order."

The Press