Scots have seasons to be cheerful
Blackadder's infectious spirit has given Edinburgh a new lease of life. Hugh Godwin discovers his secret
Sunday 20 October 2002
On the back pitches at Murrayfield, the Edinburgh Gunners go about their work, fine-tuning before the trip south to face London Irish in the Heineken Cup. It's a long way from home for their captain, Todd Blackadder, in every sense, but the New Zealander is not out of place. As long as there is a set of posts at either end of the field, and a match to be won, Blackadder is happy.
Blackadder had 11 years at Canterbury, during which he led the Crusaders to three back-to-back Super 12 titles, before swapping hemispheres midway through last season. Into the suitcase went a dozen Test caps for the All Blacks, whom he also skippered from the second row, and with his wife and two children, it was off to Edinburgh.
He found a different rugby culture, of course, but a shock it was not. Rather another challenge, that of putting the game in Scotland on track, and making flesh the marketing vision of Edinburgh Rugby.
"Of course it's a huge contrast," said Blackadder, "going from a packed ground in Christchurch where you can't hear yourself think, to Meadowbank in Edinburgh, where last week we had 4,500 fans. But that's already an improvement from the position at Myreside last season, with crowds of a couple of thousand. We've got to earn the respect of our supporters; give them results to be proud of."
Nine days ago, Blackadder made his Heineken Cup debut – he arrived too late for last year's pool stage – as Edinburgh beat Newport 27-17. No Scottish team has yet made the quarter-finals. Though the obvious priority in the Scottish Rugby Union's masterplan is to produce a winning national team, it looks an astute move to have recruited a man whose "MacAdder" side of the family emigrated to New Zealand when they were more likely to be carrying claymores than rugby balls.
"I didn't come over here to take part in another Canterbury," said Blackadder. "I'm here to be an Edinburgh player, and enjoy a different environment. I've never been made to feel like a foreigner. This is a Scottish team with a Scottish flavour; it's 99 per cent Scottish players. There are some fabulous players here, it's almost an untapped resource. The next crop of players are coming through the institute programme, at under-19 level, and from what I've seen, they're as good as anywhere in the world."
Edinburgh have cut out the 12-hour bus journeys to away fixtures that Blackadder says left them "knackered before we'd even started". With Scott Murray brought back to lock the scrum, and Blackadder operating at No 6 alongside Martin Leslie and Simon Taylor, results this season in the Celtic League have been promising. If they can add an away win in Europe today, the whiff of something special will go round Auld Reekie.
But Blackadder, who is here for this season and next, is not seeking overnight success. Even Canterbury had lean times before the likes of Wayne Smith, now at Northampton, and Steve Hansen, the current Wales coach, brought success. Smith wrote the foreword to Blackadder's autobiography, Loyal, and the pair still talk regularly. With Tony Gilbert and Kiwi Searancke coaching, respectively, the Borders and Glasgow, the New Zealand influence among the three "pro" teams is evident. Ian McGeechan, Scotland's coach, is a fan: he added Blackadder to his coaching team in August, to work one-to-one with certain players. "It's not so much a New Zealand style of play they bring to the game, it's their attitude," said McGeechan. "They work hard and the benefits are showing throughout the teams. Todd Blackadder is one of the most impressive men I've ever met. Honest, diligent and hard-nosed. He is an absolute goldmine for Scottish rugby."
Blackadder, 31 last month, left home on a wave of good will – the then chief executive of the NZRFU, David Rutherford referred to his "unrelenting commitment, inspi- rational leadership, tireless work ethic and absolute humility". His home town, Rangiora, was once renamed "Blackadderville" for the day. For now, until Blackadder eventually returns, probably to a coaching job, it is history. Edinburgh is what counts.
"We've had a pretty good season so far but against London Irish we'll have to step it up. Irish put in a bloody good effort against Toulouse, who are a good side. We've already seen a change in the Celtic League, where the Scottish teams used to be the also-rans. The next step is to be competitive in Europe. The Borders team will be established in a couple of years' time. So instead of two guys fighting it out for the Scotland jersey, there's three, plus the Scottish boys playing in England."
An eminent Kiwi, then, and not one with a humour bypass. The saving grace about the afore-mentioned bus journeys was, according to Blackadder, the chance to "drop a few cans on the way home". He applauds the after-match question-and-answer sessions between players and supporters at Meadowbank. And though it's safe to say this Captain Blackadder won't be putting two pencils up his nose and a pair of underpants on his head to sidestep the battle, he preferred to keep today's game plan close to his chest. "Isn't it the best player who can adapt to any given situation on the field?" he teased. Does that mean having Plans A, B, C and D? "We might have to come up with A to Z, mate, against the Irish."
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