Blackadder at a crossroads with Crusaders

RICHARD KNOWLER
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2013
Todd Blackadder
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ
TODD BLACKADDER: "But I am not going to get caught up in this thing where we have just got to win it. This competition is too tough, there are no guarantees."

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Todd Blackadder is already bracing himself for the loaded questions.

Although the Crusaders won't play their opening Super Rugby match against the Blues until next Friday night, speculation about Blackadder's future as head coach is already gaining heat.

His results since being appointed in 2009 have been respectable - the Crusaders are the only New Zealand side to make the finals in each of the last four seasons - but for some critics that isn't acceptable.

They are screaming for a title and if it isn't delivered they want heads on spikes.

Having inherited from Robbie Deans a squad of ruthless internationals who joyfully swung their jackboots into any opponent that displayed weaknesses, Blackadder knows the powerhouse franchise arez overdue for their eighth title.

He also knows his detractors are sharpening their arrows and that there are a string of coaches, here and abroad, who know his contract expires at the end of this season.

Yet Blackadder is ready to save his interrogators the bother of shooting him up with sodium pentothal if the Crusaders' form begins to wane.

He is adamant he is not going to be coerced into saying he will resign if the Crusaders don't win the title.

"I know every interview I do it will be 'you have to win it this year or you are gone' - that every time I do an interview they are almost trying to set me up to say something," Blackadder said.

"But my focus is to really enjoy this year. We are hellbent on winning the title - that is what we are here to do - but instead of focusing on the outcome all the time, we are just going to focus on the day-to-day things. Last year I brought into that (looking too far ahead) and it doesn't work."

After the Crusaders lost to the Chiefs in last year' semi-final at Waikato Stadium a listless Blackadder couldn't be bothered offering excuses for the defeat. He knew they had blown it.

Accepting that responsibility, he accepts, is part of the gig.

"I know the buck stops with me. If we have a season where we just don't meet expectations and it is just not good enough I will put my hand up - I have no problem with that.

"But I am not going to get caught up in this thing where we have just got to win it. This competition is too tough, there are no guarantees."

Following the loss to the Chiefs Blackadder made one of the toughest decisions of his coaching career by demoting backs coach Daryl Gibson, a former team-mate, friend and coaching partner for four seasons, to defensive coach.

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Gibson, clearly unhappy, later joined the Waratahs as Michael Cheika's assistant. Aaron Mauger and Tabai Matson later signed as backs coaches.

Despite being the catalyst for Gibson's move to Sydney, Blackadder is unrepentant.

"Definitely, it was hard. There was also some emotional attachment there to a guy who spent four years here. And he is still having a huge influence on this team, he selected most of these guys, spent a lot of time with them and is a good man.

"But we just weren't quite getting what we needed out of him ... There were lessons learned along the way too. I should have intervened and there were things missed and it could have been so much better."

Blackadder also hinted the post-match conversation didn't drag on when the Crusaders met the Waratahs in Sydney last week.

"It's never easy. There is that little bit of awkwardness but I think that is a simple fact of life. And it would be wrong if there wasn't because people really care about the team they have been involved with. I just think they are all natural feelings."

There was less acrimony surrounding the exit of physical performance co-ordinator Carl Jennings. Having previously worked with new Warriors coach Matthew Elliot at Bradford, Canberra and Penrith, before he was replaced by Ivan Cleary, Jennings was unable to resist re-joining his old mate in Auckland.

Blackadder's next assignment was more complex.

Unimpressed by the way the majority of his All Blacks' destroyed opponents on the international stage but struggled in his side, Blackadder knew more changes were needed.

A mid-season meeting with Richie McCaw determined he was free to take his sabbatical which would allow Kieran Read to be the full-time captain.

Even if McCaw had been available, Blackadder said he would not have been skipper this year.

The burden of leading the All Blacks and the Crusaders was too heavy and management were seeing too many signs to fool themselves that he was able to contribute fully to the latter.

Taking the vice-captain's armband off Dan Carter, also McCaw's deputy in the All Blacks, and giving that job to Ryan Crotty and George Whitelock followed the same principal.

"When they go to the All Blacks they have got greater responsibilities - the nation is watching them," Blackadder said. "Here they can be a little bit more themselves but they can still contribute."

Israel Dagg is another project player.

After a series of meek performances for the Crusaders last year he unleashed against Ireland in the All Blacks' first test in June to show why he is the world's best fullback.

It was an early warning sign that something was seriously wrong with the Crusaders' attack. Rather than vent at Dagg Blackadder said the coaches were forced to ask where they were failing.

"It's easy to say these guys don't perform well for the Crusaders but there is a reason for that. One of the learnings from that was that he is a good kid and he doesn't owe the Crusaders anything.

"Last year he was looking for answers and we weren't able to give them to him. He needed some direction, he needed some help. This year we have put some things in place."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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