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'Could be a big deal' - Robbie Deans could be at the centre of Japanese Rugby's 'Coolum effect' - and he's been here before

7th February, 2024
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7th February, 2024
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Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights’ crushing 38-14 defeat of the Chiefs in the inaugural Cross Border Rugby series in Japan last weekend might not seem like a big deal.

But it could be.

If the game in Japan is seeking that pivotal moment, the time that the Japanese overcame a sense of inferiority in their on-field relations with the heavyweights of the southern hemisphere, this could be it. It has happened in a similar context before.

The irony is that the same figure was involved.

Wild Knights coach Robbie Deans remembers the moment well. Coolum of all places, in a seemingly meaningless pre-season trial.

Deans was Crusaders manager at the time, part of an off-field team headed by Wayne Smith.

The opponents were the Auckland Blues; winners of the first two Super Rugby titles, representing a city that had so dominated the Christchurch-based Canterbury in New Zealand’s domestic competition that the red and blacks hadn’t prevailed in a single contest for over a decade.

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The one-sided nature of the relationship had spilled over to the Super Rugby arena as well.

The Blues game was part of a pre-season Southern Cross series in 1998, where the Queensland Reds and the NSW Waratahs put the finishing touches on their own Super Rugby preparations in a round-robin against the two New Zealand teams.

So chilled was the environment, the players even travelled to the ground from their accommodation on bicycles!
And yet, what was supposedly an inconsequential runaround, had a tumultuous far-reaching effect on not just New Zealand, but Super Rugby as a whole.

By beating the Blues for the first time, the Crusaders not only gained a fillip before their third season, but they crashed through a psychological barrier of intimidation that the Aucklanders had erected and defended for so long.

It was, Deans told me when we put together his biography ‘Red, Black and Gold’, a major turning point; the first step in the creation of a Crusaders dynasty that has dominated Southern Hemisphere club rugby for most of the time since.

In giving the players an experience of victory over their major rival, it gave them a new sense of belief, a confidence that they could go up against an opponent which – at the time could field an entire All Black starting XV plus a few more on the bench – and win.

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This is why for Japanese players – who have run the All Blacks amongst others, close in recent years without being able to break the psychological barrier – the Wild Knights’ success could be so important.

Even more so when it is considered that a good portion of Deans’ squad, who bossed their New Zealand opponents physically, are also members of the Brave Blossoms, and so will be accessible for Eddie Jones.

The Crusaders didn’t beat the Blues during the round robin clash later in 1998 but having broken through the mental barrier in the pre-season and tip-toed their way into the decider, they never doubted that they could win when the teams met again.

History records that the Crusaders won an epic final, scoring in the last minute to inflict a first ever defeat on the home side at Eden Park after three seasons of Blues’ supremacy.

Marika Koroibete (2nd L) of Saitama Wild Knights celebrates with teammates after scoring the team's third try during the preseason match between Saitama Panasonic Wild Knights and Chiefs at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium on February 4, 2024 in Kumagaya, Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

Marika Koroibete celebrates with teammates after scoring the team’s third try against the Chiefs. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years on, the Blues have tasted title success in the full competition just once since Coolum, whereas the Crusaders – who finished last in the competition’s maiden season – have won Super Rugby an incredible 14 times, 10 of which were achieved when the competition was at its height, encompassing South African, and briefly, representation from Argentina and Japan.

And it all traces back to that seminal moment on a mild late summer Queensland evening.

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History could judge the Wild Knights’ victory on Sunday so important, non-competition game or not.

The Blues probably shrugged off their defeat at the time as unimportant because the Southern Cross series was a mere pre-season trial.

Look what’s happened to them!

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