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Supporter base's voice is heard as Crusaders keep contentious name | Matt McILraith | Sport


In an era where the emotional ties of fans are often subjugated to the desires of broadcasters and the single-minded charge towards financial gain, the rationale behind the decision of the Crusaders to stay the course with their maiden name was refreshing.

There was no right or wrong answer to the invidious position the Christchurch-based rugby organisation found itself in. Nor does their decision to remain the Crusaders in any way disrespect the tragic events of 15 March, when 53 members of the Christchurch community died in a senseless shooting at two of the city’s mosques.

While the city’s Islamic community preferred not to be involved in the discussions associated with branding review, they made no request for the name to be changed. Members of that community are fans and support the team at games.

Where the decision was heartening, even allowing for the tragedy that predicated it, was that after conducting a 360-degree brand review, the organisation, in effect, allowed the supporter base to decide on the name.

These are the people who buy the tickets, scoop up the merchandise, and loyally front each week to attend the games. How could they not be “trusted” to decide what was best for the name of “their” team? Had the review revealed that the fan base desired a change, undoubtedly a new name would have been introduced.

When the Crusaders name was chosen to represent the area’s new Super Rugby team 25 years ago, the reference was selected purely to reflect the Englishness of Christchurch and its surrounds. The rationale was the same as that which named the Highlanders, who associate with Otago’s Scottish past.

As New Zealand reeled in the aftermath of its worst ever terrorist attack, the use of the name inadvertently became the focal point of a wider and uncomfortable debate around Kiwi attitudes towards Muslims. Stunned that something so horrific could occur in a country that prides itself on embracing all-comers and celebrating its multi-cultural heritage, the attack had New Zealanders questioning themselves, seeking comfort in the “They are us” motto that sprung up all over the country.

The team’s name, it was argued, wasn’t appropriate within this context.

The irony of the Crusaders becoming a target in such circumstances was not lost on many former players. Since being set up, the organisation has made extraordinary efforts to connect with, and play an active role in, its community throughout the top half of the South Island.

Embracing diversity, and treating everyone equally in the dressing room, regardless of their ethnic background and faith, and whether they have been in the team for 10 years, or are in their first year, has also formed a key part of the team’s successful culture. Both are templates to which their rivals aspire.

Even so, the sickening attack placed the Crusaders at the forefront of the national debate. This was especially so when New Zealand Rugby suggested within a few days of the attacks that the link to knights on horseback, which featured on the Crusaders emblem, was “no longer tenable”.

Colin Mansbridge was less than six months into his role as Crusaders chief executive when the shootings occurred but handled the storm that engulfed his organisation as nimbly as one of his fleet-footed wingers. He promised the review, but suggested that given the prevailing emotions, the immediate aftermath was not the time to be making such far-reaching decisions.

Although New Zealand’s five Super Rugby teams operate independently, head office pays the bulk of the player’s salaries. It also owns the licence that the Crusaders partnership leases to be part of Super Rugby, so New Zealand Rugby was always going to play a big role in the outcome and helped pay for the review.

As a result, and as previously forecast, the Crusaders’ sword-wielding knight emblem was dumped for a new, softer-looking, design.

Finding another name to better connect with the team’s history would have been particularly difficult and players, past and present, provided an important viewpoint in the review. The name has been almost a constant for the internal theming used by the team during the various campaigns, which have seen the Crusaders win the Super Rugby title 10 times.

Its meaning to both the players and the fans goes well beyond just being the name on a scoreboard. Importantly the passionate support base, many of whom were left bewildered amid the torrent of emotive editorial against the name, were a key part of the consultation process.

They have been heard.

Their collective view quickly became apparent once the threat first appeared, as an online survey defending the name received the support of nearly 25,000 people in less than a week. This evidence was supported further in external research by media organisations which indicated a strong desire amongst the community for the name to be retained.

With falling attendances across the competition reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with Super Rugby, and the Crusaders already struggling financially despite their on-field dominance, the prospect of a new name risked alienating sections of their support base, at least in the short term.

The Crusaders knew that, whatever the review’s outcome, the decision was going to stir emotions and might leave a section of the country’s population unhappy.

In ultimately meeting the wishes of those who support the team and organisation, the Crusaders have not shied away from a hard decision and have again shown the resilience that got them and their community through difficult times after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

The knight and sword may be gone, but the naming decision shows that the connection between the team and the fans, that has been an important part of the Crusaders’ story, remains.


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