Canterbury continue to set the standard in provincial rugby
Campbell Burnes contends that Canterbury does not need all its stars to consistently win.
By the time you read this, Canterbury may well be provincial champions for the ninth time in 10 years, a true decade of dominance which was once the preserve of the great Auckland teams of 1982-96.
If they do not win, that will not alter the argument that they are consistently the best provincial team in the land.
How do they do it? Continuity of selection with players and coaches, keeping the game plan simple, everybody knowing their roles, astute recruitment, and an ability to soak up pressure and deliver the knockout blow. They have their share of All Blacks, but since 2008 they have lent on classy footballers such as Colin Slade and Matt Todd to lead the way with accurate, often understated displays.
Coaches such as Rob Penney and Scott Robertson have maintained the legacy, and in 2017 new coach Glenn Delaney has not missed a beat, though he is furthering himself with the Highlanders in 2018.
Their dissection of Counties Manukau in a Shield defence was a thing of beauty, unless you are a Steelers fan. But then look at the personnel; George Bridge was the Crusaders’ rookie of the year, Josh McKay is a versatile and classy operator with a wide range of skills, and prolific tryscorer Braydon Ennor has found a home on the wing, although he is primarily a centre. Richie Mo’unga is fit to rank as the country’s second best No 10. The glue is provided by the veteran Tim Bateman in midfield, a smart player, perhaps lacking the X-factor to be considered at the highest level, but gold for Canterbury. Mitch Drummond is a sparky halfback with good back-up from the likes of NZU rep Jack Stratton.
Luke Whitelock, until his untimely injury, was on top of his game at No 8, while Todd’s absence via injury and All Blacks’ call-up was hardly felt due to the quality of Jed Brown and Tom Sanders. Reed Prinsep, Rob Thompson and Ben Funnell all made good strides after solid Super Rugby seasons. Mitch Dunshea is on the rise.
Lock Dominic Bird is one of these players going better now than he did when he first cracked the All Blacks. He cannot be far away from another call-up.
Christchurch may be an earthquake zone, but there are two universities – Lincoln University, in particular, has a well organised, successful club – and an established culture of success. Promising players rarely think twice about making the Garden City their home.
So there you have it. Canterbury has bred its fair share of talent, shipped in others in areas where needed, and had the coaching wherewithal to put it all together. Any transition up to the Crusaders is seamless, as they are all on the same systems.
There are 13 other provinces looking on with envy and chasing the red and blacks. They have done that for a few seasons now.