Super Rugby Pacific Final: Old Friends Scott Robertson, Leon MacDonald Draw Battle Lines

Leon MacDonald never gives too much away in the best of times. But when the Blues coach is told that his rival for the Super Rugby Pacific Championship sees the Crusader influence in his team, let’s just say it wasn’t a dead end he wanted to descend.

No doubt Crusaders supercoach Scott “Razor” Robertson meant it as a compliment, and at any other time the man they call Rangi, who was a 122 game Crusader, would no doubt take it as a compliment. But this is two days from the Grand Final Super Rugby Pacific between New Zealand’s two most successful franchises in a sold-out Eden Park and, frankly, the Blues boss had none of it.

Here’s how the species exchange played out. In Christchurch on Thursday, Robertson, who… welcomed a back fit Sam Whitelock in his lineup, was inevitably asked about the Blues under his longtime teammate and assistant coach from 2017. All things considered, he was quite full of praise, saying that he saw “acquaintances”, that they were a “close group” and that it was clear they enjoyed each other’s company.

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The game becomes a smashing affair.

Robertson, who described MacDonald as a close friend, added: “He’s a smart man, a great rugby tactician, and Joe Schmidt has shaped the Blues and rounded them out beautifully. If they are disciplined and defend for a long time… they can handle pressure.”

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MacDonald, through squinted eyes and clenched teeth: “That’s his observation. I don’t see that. I think this group has found its own way. I’ve changed a lot since I’ve been here, our game is our game and it’s different from theirs. Theirs is dangerous, and I think ours is, for several reasons. But this is the Blues rugby team.”

All grist to the mill in the run-up to a finale with storylines galore. Eternal success versus eternal futility, Richie Mo’unga v Beauden Barrett, Luke Romano against the team that turned down his services, the stubborn, clinical manners of the South versus the flair and fine footwork of the northerners of the big cities. To that you can add Rangi v Razor.

However Saturday’s sold-out Eden Park clash goes, it will be won by a head coach who is deeply imbued with the red and black ways.

Close friends and former teammates Leon MacDonald and Scott Robertson have become coaching rivals.

Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Close friends and former teammates Leon MacDonald and Scott Robertson have become coaching rivals.

The inimitable, break-dance, trophy-collecting Robertson eventually turned his playing career with the most successful franchise in professional rugby (1996-2003) into a coaching relationship that has delivered literally nothing but success.

Since Robertson – the All Blacks coach pending – took over the reins of the Crusaders in 2017, they’ve racked up a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles (ending by their standards to a nine-year drought of Saharan dimensions), followed by the Aotearoa crowns of the Covid era 2020-21. They were anything but perfect under the razor’s edge, with only last year’s austere Trans-Tasman competition eluding them (even though they won all five of their matches).

MacDonald’s rein in the Blues was less swift, but almost as important. The 56 Test All Black who played almost his 13-year Super Rugby career with the Crusaders but one has slowly but surely transformed the underperforming Auckland outfit from pretenders to contenders, from suckers to champions, with the Trans-Tasman title their first since the ’03 triumph. This year they appear to have taken the final step, with a 15-game win to the final, including their first win in Christchurch (27-23) in 18 years.

When asked what had changed for him, MacDonald said, “The way I’ve thought about the game. There’s a different mindset in Auckland…and I’ve adapted to that and grown in terms of opening my mind. There are different ways of doing things, and you don’t have to do them the same way. That’s the beauty of this team – they’ve created their own path.”

Stephen Perofeta and the Blues will try two of two against the Crusaders on Saturday before 2022.

John Davidson/Photosport

Stephen Perofeta and the Blues will try two of two against the Crusaders before 2022 on Saturday.

MacDonald said he never pictured himself coaching the Auckland franchise but was now in his element. “I love it and I’m fully invested in the Blues,” he added. “I feel a great connection to this group, we have evolved over time as a coaching group and players and now we feel really comfortable with what we do on and off the grass.

“It’s been a great year and to have the final against the Crusaders is really perfect.”

MacDonald was a cool customer during his playing time and as a coach radiates that calm exterior. When asked what gave him confidence that his Blues could beat the Crusaders who don’t lose many finals (just four out of a remarkable 14, 15 if you count the ’21 Aotearoa playoff), he paused for just a stroke.

“Yeah, they haven’t lost anything lately. We are confident in what we have done all year. We have shown at times that we can be chased in defence, we have shown a lot of courage there and that we can be physical. In an attack, if we’re right, we’re hard to contain. We’ve been there this year and beat them at home, and we’ve got a big crowd here behind us, so that gives us confidence too.”

Crusader-like confidence you might say. But MacDonald wouldn’t like that.

Rangi v Razor

Leon MacDonald

Age: 44

Played 122 games for Crusaders from 1997 to 2009; 56 tests for All Blacks 2000-08

Head Coach: Tasman 2016-18; Blues 2019-22

Scott Robertson

Age: 47

Played 86 games for Crusaders from 1996 to 2003; 23 Tests for All Blacks 1998-02

Head Coach: Canterbury 2013-18; Crusaders 2017-22

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