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From farmer to All Black: Canadian rugby coach knows all about commitment

09/12/2011 03:16 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST
As a player in his native New Zealand, Kieran Crowley juggled rugby with farming.

There were early starts and late nights as he mixed milking cows on the family farm with practice and games for his Kaponga club and provincial Taranaki side, not to mention personal training sessions to perfect his kicking game.

Rugby was amateur back then.

But the former All Black has no regrets about missing out on the big contracts today's stars get. Instead, he looks back and sees balance in his life — and the support from his family that allowed him to make it all work.

"It'd be nice to have the money I suppose but I wouldn't trade it for anything — those days," Crowley said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "You had a great camaraderie, you had a lot of fun. It was good."

Now a trim 50 who still looks like he could play a bit, Crowley is coach of Canada's national team, which opens its Rugby World Cup campaign Wednesday against Tonga in Whangarei, New Zealand.

Only a third of the 30-man Canadian World Cup squad are currently affiliated with a pro team. The rest play at home, relying on a Sport Canada stipend or job to pay the bills.

Crowley, who knows more than a little about combining rugby with the real world, couldn't be prouder of them.

"I know the sacrifices that these boys here have made to go to a World Cup," he said. "They're the best professionals I've ever been involved with, I think, but they don't get paid — the majority of them."

"And when you hear the national anthem of Canada going and you can look down and you see them singing their hearts out, you know what they've been through to get here.

"That's the emotional side of it. You just hope they can go out and put out a performance worthy of the sacrifices that they've made."

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The oldest of six boys and a girl, Crowley grew up on a family farm some 45 minutes from New Plymouth on the west side of the North Island.

"A very little one by New Zealand standards," Crowley says of the farm, which has 160 dairy cows. His parents still live there, with a manager running the farming operation.

Crowley played second-division rugby for Kaponga, a township of just 200. He was just 18 when he was called up by the provincial Taranaki side in 1980, earning him the nickname of Kid. That changed to Colt when he was summoned that year by the New Zealand (under-21) Colts.

The Taranaki side was filled with farmers. Hard men known more for their toughness than flair, although Crowley helped change that. Kaponga was promoted to the top tier, even cracking the top four for a time.

Provincially, three of his brothers also played for Taranaki. "The other two got pretty close but didn't quite make it."

Crowley was 22 when he was promoted to the All Blacks in 1983 for a tour of England and Scotland, stepping in for the injured Allan Hewson. Crowley made his Test debut in 1985, scoring all of New Zealand's points in an 18-13 win over visiting England.

"It was an amazing feeling," he said of pulling on the black jersey with the silver fern for the first time against South of Scotland in October 1983.

"In Canada, I suppose people want to play hockey at the top level," he added. "In New Zealand, it was all about playing for the All Blacks. And when you do it, it's an achievement that you're really proud of.

"But you also feel a responsibility, a real responsibility to yourself, to your family, to your country. . . . You are part of tradition, you're part of all those sorts of things that make the All Black brand what it was or is."

Each All Black gets a number these days, indicating where they fit in the famed team's timeline. Crowley will always be No. 848.

"I wasn't a flashy player, I was consistent, I think," he said. "In those days I wasn't as fast as a lot of players but, from a fullback's perspective, I think my strength was probably my reading of the play and my positional play."

Crowley had to work for what he got on the field, often making the most of second chances.

"It's all about opportunity isn't it?" he said.

He was a backup fullback to John Gallagher at the 1987 World Cup won by New Zealand, and played in a pool match against Argentina. Gallagher and Matthew Ridge then kept him out of the national side until both switched to rugby league in 1990.

Crowley played nine games for the All Blacks in 1990 and six in '91, making the '91 World Cup squad as a replacement for the injured Terry Wright. Bitterly disappointed at not being selected from the get-go, his turn came in the semifinal against Australia — a 16-6 loss in Dublin.

Crowley, who prided himself on knowing what his opponents would do, learned a painful lesson that game.

Australian star David Campese was coming his way and Crowley recognized he was going to launch a kick over the top.

"I knew he was going to do it, I knew it from five yards away. I knew I needed to be over there and I just couldn't get there. But if I had been playing regularly in that World Cup, maybe I might have already been there.

"So it was about being in the game mentally, you've got to be sharp mentally and that game taught me you have to have people that are used to that."

It was his last game for the All Blacks.

Crowley, who was 30 at the time, played 35 matches (including 19 Tests) and scored 316 points for New Zealand.

He continued to play for Taranaki until 1994, becoming its leading points scorer. He retired when there were more instances of not being able to get his body to where his mind knew it needed to be.

Crowley went on to coach Taranaki, serve as an All Blacks selector and led New Zealand to the IRB world under-19 championship in 2007.

He was named Canadian coach in March 2008, after Ric Suggitt's contract was not renewed.

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A former selector for the All Blacks, Crowley knows all about evaluating talent.

From 2001 to 2003, Crowley and fellow All Black alum Mark Shaw helped then-coach John Mitchell and assistant Robbie Deans (now coach of Australia) eyeball New Zealand's rugby riches.

"Each weekend you'd be flying to two or three (then Super 12) games because they'd be playing Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Crowley recalled.

"That taught me a lot about selection because you actually don't go to a game and just watch the game. You go and watch a player. Sometimes you wouldn't even know how a try was scored because you'd be watching what a player does."

After watching games live, Crowley would crunch stats and watch video.

"It was a part-time job but it was a real hard, intense job," he said.

And with such a talented player pool, he soon learned sometimes it came down to the intangibles in choosing between players of similar skills.

"In the end it comes down to gut feel or coach's preference, I suppose. That and consistency."

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Crowley's background as a player and experience as a selector have shaped his coaching style.

Canadian players say they always know where they stand with him.

"He's a really fair coach and picks who's on form," said flanker Chauncey O'Toole. "It's really who's playing best at the time."

"I rate him really highly," added O'Toole.

Added veteran forward Jamie Cudmore: "There's a lot of clarity."

After taking over Canada, Crowley quickly concluded that some players were getting in the team on reputation.

"I didn't know anyone when I came here to be honest," he said. "But then I saw some players playing for Canada and I saw some (other) players who I thought had potential and who were just as good as the players who were playing.

"I think it's important that you pick on form. I mean class is permanent, form is temporary but you've got to look at your players on how they're reacting or what they can bring to the team.

"And on the odd occasion you might go for experience over say youth because of a different situation. But if a player's playing well, they deserve the opportunity, I think."

Crowley and his staff have scoured the country for talent, looking to develop competition within his squad.

"I think that competition is what builds the team unity or it builds the strength of a team. . . . Because my big thing there is that you've only got the jersey for 80 minutes and you give it back and it might be your last opportunity, so you've got to earn that right to wear it again."

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Crowley has surrounded himself with coaching talent, in forwards coach Neil Barnes, defensive coach Clive Griffiths, scrum coach Mike Shelley, assistant coach Geraint John and strength and conditioning coach Matt Barr.

"This is high-performance sport, it's elite sport," said Crowley. "It's exactly the same as if you're doing a film or something. You need a producer, you need a technical director, you need all those sort of things. Well rugby's the same."

Barnes worked with Crowley when he coached Taranaki. Griffiths is a former Wales assistant coach who was in charge of defence during the Welsh 2005 Grand Slam campaign. Shelley is a former Leeds and England 'A' player who coaches the Canadian under-20 squad. John is a former player and assistant coach at powerful Welsh club Cardiff who runs the Canadian sevens program.

"We're in a much more professional setup now," said Cudmore. "There's a lot more coherence. . . . Everybody has their jobs and he (Crowley) keeps everyone well and truly on track. I can't say enough. It's no different than my professional team."

Griffith has been key in shoring up the Canadian defence.

"We needed to get our defence sorted, I thought we were leaking too many tries. Because if you leak three tries, you're more than likely going to need to score four to win."

Barnes, who is still a farmer back home in New Zealand, and the other coaches also help with game planning.

Canada has two four-day turnarounds at the World Cup, leaving little time to prep for the next game.

Crowley acknowledges he came to Canada with some misconceptions about the players awaiting him.

"I perceived that they were big, which was a shock to me when I got here, because they're not."

Barr has helped change that, building the Canadian players into a physical force.

"He's done a massive job in the strength and conditioning,"Crowley said. "There's been some good work done before him and he's just lifted it to another level as well.

"The players now, I think, are in the best nick they've ever been in, since I've been here anyway. That just doesn't happen by giving them a program and telling them to follow it. It's day-to-day contact with those players."

On the physical front, Canada had fallen behind players from other countries when the sport went professional.

"They got bigger, they got a hell of a lot bigger,"Crowley said of Canada's professional rivals. "Canadians didn't, because they simply were simply still (playing) amateur rugby.

"We went to Wales two years ago, I think our forward pack was 10 kilos a man lighter on average." he added. "Well you put 80 kilos up over 80 minutes of rugby and it's massive, and our backs were the same. . . . A good big man will always beat a good small man. Size is not everything but you certainly need it to compete in that set play."

The Canadians may be bigger and fitter, but their choices in the lineout — where height does matter — are still limited.

Canada will have to be creative to compete with some of the big boys on that score.

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Ranked 14th out of the 20 teams at the World Cup, the Canadians are looking up in the ratings at fellow Pool A teams New Zealand (No. 1), France (5), Tonga (12) and Japan (13).

But Crowley is conceding nothing.

"We're going to approach every game exactly the same. We'll do as much work for New Zealand as we do for France, as we do for Japan and Tonga. . . . The players have to believe that too. Rugby's one thing that you start at nil-all."

Self-belief is something he has worked hard to instill in his players.

"I'll never say that we haven't have a chance against a team because I believe you've always got a chance.

"We talk a lot about composure. Composure to me is when you go into a game knowing you've done everything in preparation you can do and if you get into a situation in a game you may know what to do.

"We will hopefully be able to say that when we get into every game. And whatever will be will be, then."

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Crowley has signed an 18-month contact extension with Rugby Canada that will take him through June 2013.

For Rugby Canada, it means some time to ponder the future about the World Cup. For Crowley, it's a chance to allow his middle child — he and his wife have a 17-year-old son and 13- and 15-year-old daughters — time to graduate.

"We've loved it," Crowley says of living in the Victoria area. "It's great. Where we live is a lot like New Zealand to be honest on Vancouver Island. The people have been great and the kids have settled into school really well ... We really enjoy it."

Prior to this World Cup, his family had only been back to New Zealand once.

But he isn't saying much about what lies ahead, other than saying "That's all in the future, isn't it?"

But whatever happens, he plans to leave Canadian rugby in good health.

"You've got to leave an organization in better shape than when you came. And I found when I came, I thought that we'd got to a World Cup and in some places there wasn't anything coming out the other side."

By his reckoning, possibly 21-22 members of the current World Cup team "would be right in the next World Cup frame, because they're only just coming into their prime

"And there's a few that I think still have three World Cups in them."

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