Super Rugby final: The anatomy of 20 years of Crusaders dominance

It's almost impossible to fathom how the Crusaders could ever finish in last place. But that's exactly what happened in Super Rugby's inaugural season back in 1996.

For a franchise that has since gone on to establish itself among rugby's most iconic brands with success to rival any sporting club on the planet, failure just doesn't seem to fit the mission statement.

But long before their eighth Super Rugby title was secured, in 2017, the Crusaders were wooden-spoon whipping boys. They backed up that first season with a five-win campaign to finish sixth.

Then something changed.

Future Crusaders and All Blacks captain Reuben Thorne joined the franchise in 1998, a season that would prove the beginning of what would eventually become one of the most dominant periods in sporting history.

"In '98, they were actually in a pretty good place because the Canterbury rugby team that, I guess, formed the basis of the Crusaders had just won the [1997 National Provincial Championship] for the first time in however many years ... and we'd beaten the Auckland team twice that year," Thorne tells ESPN.

"So that had given the boys a lot of belief in what we were doing and the systems that we were using and we wanted to sort of use that as a bit of a platform to launch into Super Rugby. And then even though we started off a bit slowly in '98 -- I think after four rounds we were sitting dead last again -- we still knew in the back of our minds that we could beat those teams because we had done it in the provincial championship. So that was sort of what kicked it off for us and we were actually feeling pretty good about it."

Later that year, the Crusaders would go to Auckland's Eden Park and beat the Blues in the Super 12 decider, the first of three straight titles. What is sometimes forgotten, however, is the fact that all three were won away from home; triumphs over the Highlanders and Brumbies in Dunedin and Canberra respectively completed the historic three-peat.

Even then, it's hard to imagine a modern-day professional team -- in any sport -- going on to enjoy the success the Crusaders had over the next decade. Sure, their playing roster included names like Marshall, Mehrtens, Maxwell, Sommerville and Blackadder; and later McCaw, Carter, Thorn and Mauger. But it takes a certain type of environment to ensure such players reach their potential, no matter the extent of their individual skills.

For a team to succeed, to hit the heights the Crusaders did, the right culture must be facilitated. For the franchise from the top half of New Zealand's South Island, which on Saturday chases a ninth title, against the Lions, that ethos was first fostered by Wayne Smith.

Smith is an icon of New Zealand rugby. Having played for the All Blacks at fly-half himself, he later became the head coach. But it was an assistant to Graham Henry and Steve Hansen where he enjoyed the greatest success, including the back-to-back Rugby World Cup triumphs of 2011 and 2015.

"He [Smith] was fantastic, for me as a young guy coming in, there was a lot of talk about the values and the culture that we wanted to create," Thorne tells ESPN of his experiences with Smith at the Crusaders. "Smithy used a lot of imagery and emotive language to help build that around character and values and all those sorts of things, and we put a big emphasis on that.

"So I think that was really good at forming the foundations of the team and the way we wanted to behave and treat each other; they built strong connections between the players through doing that, and when you get into those tough games, tough situations, those little things that perhaps from the outside might look a little bit corny, they actually had meaning to the players that helped create them. So I think that was really important for us, as well."

In Thorne's opinion, Smith was ahead of his time in the way he approached the game. While his stint as head coach of the All Blacks between 2000 and 2001 failed to regain the Bledisloe Cup from Australia, as an assistant to Henry and later Hansen, Smith was a critical element in New Zealand's recovery after the quarterfinal loss to France at the 2007 World Cup.

In 2000, Smith left to join the All Blacks and Robbie Deans took over as Crusaders coach and guided the defending champions to a dramatic win in the season's decider. Two years later, skipper Todd Blackadder departed and Thorne was given the responsibility of maintaining the standards the champion lock had set, and meeting the expectation that three titles in four years brings with it.

A perfect Super 12 season followed.

There were wins on the road in Hamilton, Brisbane, Durban, Johannesburg and Wellington before they set all sorts of records in an unforgettable thrashing of the Waratahs in the final game of the regular season.

"It was amazing, really, because even though we won a lot of those games, a lot of them were really tight - a lot of them were within seven points," Thorne says. "But we were just in a good zone. The boys were really well connected and we played a good brand of rugby, we scored a lot of points. But our thinking at that stage was that the opposition were going to score points, that's going to happen; but that doesn't matter as long as we score more than them.

"So there were a lot of high-scoring games and some pretty open flowing rugby that year, and I guess for us it reached its peak in the last game of the round-robin when we played the Waratahs and put them away 96-19. It all came out then, really. It was a pretty amazing season when you stop and look back at it."

While the Crusaders were defeated in consecutive finals in 2003 and 2004, they bounced back to add titles in 2005 and 2006, and then again in 2008. Those triumphs were built around the cornerstones of Richie McCaw, who'd since assumed the captaincy from Thorne, and Dan Carter, and all came under the watchful eye of Deans.

Fast forward nine years, and the Crusaders were still hunting their elusive eighth title. A three-time champion as a player, Blackadder had been unable to deliver the trophy as a coach having twice being pipped in the final in Brisbane and Sydney. But that didn't detract from his resume, particularly given the fact he'd guided the Crusaders through to the 2011 final after the terrible Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people. The city was hurting, and the Crusaders were at least able to offer some tiny amount of respite as they went within a few minutes of a triumph that had been unthinkable six months earlier.

While Blackadder had been in change, another former Crusaders player had been going about his business in the background. Scott Robertson, a character from the opposite end of the personality spectrum who goes by the nickname of "Razor", took charge ahead of the 2017 Super Rugby season. By August of that year the Crusaders' wait was over, after a nine-year dry spell they had their elusive eighth title.

A bustling back-rower for both the Crusaders and All Blacks, Robertson made an immediate mark on the franchise when he returned as a coach, his skills and vision as a mentor honed first with Canterbury and then New Zealand Under 20s.

"He's always been a character; he's always had that big personality with lots and lots of energy no matter where you were," Thorne says of Robertson. "But he was a quality player, he was tough; he was a very, very physical openside and when he played No.8 in 2003 for the All Blacks, he was one of our best players that year. He was just in fantastic form. Very physical, good speed and, obviously, as you can see from his coaching, a really good thinker of the game as well. I've got a lot of time for Razor in the way he played, and the way he approached the game.

"You've got to respect Razor's pathway there as well. When he first came back from overseas he pretty much spent all his free-time volunteering with Canterbury Rugby; just giving his time for free, so that he was in the environment learning and growing and passing on his ideas when Rob Penny was coaching and all those guys. And he's really worked his way into that [Crusaders] role; he's done the hard yards. He's put a huge amount of energy into club rugby and he's done the junior grades as well and the Under 20s. So it's not like he's come out of nowhere for it. He's put the time and effort and the thought into his coaching, and you mix that with his big personality, it's a really good combination."

Robinson's success is a testament to the fact that all types of personalities can flourish within the Crusaders organisation. No two players or coaches are the same, and no-one can cut corners should they hope to reach the highest level, no matter their previous involvement in the region.

There are other factors behind the amazing success, too, namely academy systems that seem to have the jump on their New Zealand rivals despite all falling under the NZ Rugby banner.

The Crusaders draw out of a schoolboy competition that is hugely competitive, if not the publicity machine that Auckland's 1A tournament has become. Thorne himself is involved in the inter-school program as coach of Christ's College First XV, getting a first-hand look at players who may one day wear the red and black of either Canterbury -- whom he will join as an assistant coach later this year -- or the Crusaders.

"At the moment it's pretty strong; there's some really good rivalries. We're quite lucky in Christchurch. There are several strong schools that have got good rugby programs and we play in what we call the Crusader region, so the top of half of the South Island -- the tier one first XVs all play in that competition from Nelson and Blenheim right down to Timaru.

"And that's a really strong competition; some really good quality players come out of that competition and they obviously get picked up and put into the academy programs, and that's the pathway for them if they choose to go down the rugby pathway; it's all pretty well set up for them."

"For me it says that the guys that were here as players have been inspired by their experiences to give back to rugby. They were inspired by the coaches they had and the playing experience they had, and they want to bring that back and keep that legacy going and contribute back in some way." Reuben Thorne

Of course there are a limited number of coaching opportunities at both Canterbury and the Crusaders, meaning some former players have had to look elsewhere for their opportunities. Just this season, for example, Aaron Mauger and Daryl Gibson were at the Highlanders and Waratahs respectively, each taking their teams to the Super Rugby playoffs.

But the fact is that players are keen to come back and contribute to the Crusaders at a coaching level, and that in itself says something about what the franchise has built over the past 20 years.

"For me it says that the guys that were here as players have been inspired by their experiences to give back to rugby," Thorne says. "They were inspired by the coaches they had and the playing experience they had, and they want to bring that back and keep that legacy going and contribute back in some way.

"So I think it's a very positive thing that says a lot about the program, that there are so many players from that era; a lot of them were under Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans and Steve Hansen so it says a lot about their coaching ability and their ability to inspire people that the players they had are now coaching and passing their knowledge on. It says a lot about [Smith, Deans and Hansen]."

Amid the Crusaders' dominance of the past two years -- they've lost only three games since Robertson took charge -- and the unrivalled success across the competition's entirety, there is still a job to do this Saturday.

The Super Rugby final against the Lions seems to be a foregone conclusion given how well the Crusaders have played -- a 14-game winning streak -- and the fact that the South African side has had to travel to the other side of the world this week. Thorne agrees, if not a touch warily.

"I think the Crusaders will win," Thorne says. "The way they've been playing and just their accuracy and their ability to strike from anywhere is pretty impressive at the moment. But the Lions, they'll be very tough; they showed that against the Waratahs. They were down and they just kept fighting and came back, and their style is actually a really hard one to combat; it looks a little bit messy at times and looks a little bit frantic, but it works for them and is really effective for them.

"They have a lot of strike-power, a very strong forward pack, and it's going to be a good battle. But I think the Crusaders will just be a little bit too accurate for them, a bit too clinical and too experienced at playoff footy."

It wasn't always that way, as the 1996 and 1997 seasons in Christchurch attest.

But once the building blocks of culture, commitment and development are in place, and maintained, there is no limit to what can be achieved. The Crusaders organisation circa 1998 and onwards continues to reflect that.