Opinion: Crusaders' name change excuse not good enough

3:55 pm on 12 June 2019

Opinion - New Zealand's most prominent Muslim athlete, Sonny Bill Williams, wouldn't wear a bank logo on his jumper, but he happily played for the Crusaders.

Crusaders flag

Crusaders flag Photo: Photosport

That said, the name of the Christchurch-based Super Rugby franchise ought to go the same way as the knight and sword on their logo.

You were embarrassed for New Zealand Rugby, and the Crusaders particularly, over the weekend. New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey spoiled months of work and consultation by blurting out during a radio interview that the franchise's name wouldn't change anytime soon.

A carefully co-ordinated and constructed announcement had been scheduled for this week, where the Crusaders would confirm the medieval imagery was out, but that the name would remain until at least 2021.

That's the point at which Super Rugby will undergo its latest transformation, going back to 14 teams and potentially altering a few names. Monikers such as Rebels and Blues are fine, it's just that research has shown fans don't immediately associate them with geographic areas.

Hence proposals are on the table such as going back to Wellington Hurricanes and ACT Brumbies, for instance, as was the case when Super Rugby began. It's at that point the Crusaders might get a name that reflects their region, rather than the knights on horseback.

Cue Impey's quote that there was "no intention, and never has been any intention, that the Crusaders name would change in 2020.''

In the same way that a marketing department cottoned on to 'Crusaders' all those years ago, some bright and shiny PR firm might have a new name for the red-and-blacks come 2021. Changing in the interim would only undermine all that fine work.

The name won't go with some upheaval. Rugby fans in Christchurch identify too strongly with it. Earthquakes have ripped the guts out of that city, as have this year's mosque shootings.

Through it all, the Crusaders have given joy and hope to people and something to be proud of.

Christchurch might have been in ruins, but their footy team still stood tall.

People don't want that to change and they especially don't want it to change because of something they feel the franchise is not responsible for.

Sonny Bill Williams playing for the Crusaders in 2011.

Sonny Bill Williams playing for the Crusaders in 2011. Photo: Photosport

Let's go back to when Williams first signed for Canterbury and the Crusaders, in 2010.

A controversial figure, having walked out of the Canterbury-Bankstown rugby league club, Williams arrived in Christchurch with the news that he'd had a knee operation, and wouldn't be playing for a bit, and was then going to disappear to do some boxing.

Fans who already viewed Williams with suspicion, immediately hardened in their attitude towards him. Wose still, Williams was a recent convert to Islam.

That's why the local newspaper dispatched a reporter and photographer to catch Williams going to prayer. No-one had ever gone to where his team-mate, born-again Christian Brad Thorn, went to worship but Williams was fair game because of his brand of religion.

Canterbury Rugby was alerted, Williams stayed away from the mosque and thankfully the clamour to shame him for his beliefs quietened.

Some of these attitudes still prevail, though, and there is a disgust among sections of the Crusaders fanbase that their name will be lost because 51 innocent men, women and children were slaughtered in their city.

Mass shootings might be tragically commonplace in the United States, but they're not here. Or at least weren't.

The safety that all of us felt walking the streets and living our lives was shattered on 15 March. New Zealand is not the place it was before that massacre.

That's not the fault of the local rugby team, but it's a sad fact that their name is synonymous with Christian and Muslim conflict.

New Zealand Rugby chair Brent Impey.

New Zealand Rugby chairman Brent Impey. Photo: Photosport

Impey lamented that Crusaders jerseys and merchandise couldn't be changed for 2020, effectively throwing apparel sponsor Adidas under the bus in the process.

Only they can. Which is why the knight and sword won't be on the logo next year. So which is it, Brent?

If you can remove the imagery, because it's potentially offensive, how's the name any different?

Oh, that's right. Because the new marketing strategy isn't scheduled for release until 2021. Never mind the 51 dead and their devastated families.

It's hard to know how distressing the Crusaders name is to people. Again, though, you go back to Williams, who couldn't, in good conscience, play with a BNZ logo on his collar, but was happy to call himself a Crusader.

Rugby is asked to do a lot. Because of its prominence and reach, rugby often has to lead the way and to promote change within New Zealand. Inclusivity and compassion can be elusive things but, when rugby shows it, people inevitably follow.

What is it that has made the Crusaders Super Rugby's finest team? Is it their training ground? Their colours? The blokes on the horses? Their name?

Some of those things help to build an identity, but the franchise's success has been built on people. On players, coaches and staff from all types of backgrounds seeing the best in one another and thriving together.

Whatever the team's called, and wherever they train or play, that won't change.

If the knight and sword can go, why are we still waiting on the name?

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