Crusaders shine a beacon of hope for Christchurch's suffering citizens

Homeless side's run to today's Super 15 semi-final has given city struck by two earthquakes a boost, writes Winston Aldworth in Auckland
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The Independent Online

When the dust cleared from the earthquake that struck Christchurch on 6 February, the locals had bigger concerns than the state of the city's main rugby ground.

More than 180 people were dead – many of the bodies have never been recovered. Parts of the city that had been without running water since a quake last September were rendered uninhabitable by February's shake.

Against this grim backdrop, the prosaic business of getting on with a professional rugby season lay before the Crusaders, the region's Super Rugby side – the most successful team in the competition's history.

They were one week into their 2011 campaign, having been beaten by the Blues in Auckland, when the quake hit. With their home ground ruined by soil liquefaction, the Crusaders have been on the road ever since. Three months, countless aftershocks and 94,000km later, they arrive in Cape Town to face the Stormers in a semi-final.

The Crusaders coach, Todd Blackadder, maintains the spartan streak he nurtured as a player. "We've just come too far to let this slip," he says. "We're absolutely bloody determined that we are not going to let this one slip and we are going to make the most of this opportunity and put a good performance in."

Blackadder makes light of the long haul. "The guys are used to travelling so it's not a problem. We manage our weeks really well and travel won't be a factor this week. We'll be absolutely fine."

In truth, home advantage counts heavily in Super Rugby. Since 2000, no team has won a play-off match outside its own country – that's 32 matches over 11 years without a single international away win. Today, along with the Crusaders, the Auckland Blues give it a shot against the Reds in Brisbane.

The Crusaders are not the first professional sports team to be forced by natural disaster into a season-long road trip. The New Orleans Saints spent their 2005 NFL campaign away from home after Hurricane Katrina left the city devastated. Under the circumstances, three wins from 16 matches was considered a respectable haul.

The Crusaders were perhaps uniquely able to deal with the adversity thrown at them. In a competition with a reputation for scattergun rugby (Super 15 is the natural home of the bonus-point try, the banana kick and the no-look pass) they have developed teams of brutal efficiency and focus. Their staff have knocked off players' rough edges that other coaches couldn't see beyond, nurtured their own talent and swooped on young prospects such as the incumbent All Black No 8 Kieran Read before the teams in his own region (the Blues and Chiefs) had even stirred.

Most importantly, they win. Since 1996, they have walked away with the title eight times.

It helps having the likes of Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw emerging to fill their ranks (though both have been injured for large parts of this campaign).

There have been distractions along the way. The Crusaders' hometown continues to shake, the aftershocks driving many long-term residents to leave the city for good. While some neighbourhoods have been sharing well-used portable toilets since the first big shake in September, the Crusader machine has rumbled on. Players return home from a week away to patch up fresh cracks in the walls of their houses or shovel away the liquefaction muck that clogs the streets.

"There's been a lot of adversity," says Blackadder. "It's hard to describe unless you've seen Christchurch. We're a beacon of hope for our community, and the guys want to do well for our supporters because they're going through such hardships. The players know that people back home don't have running water and power, and that they're scared. It's given the team a lot of perspective."

The sense of purpose has proved contagious. "There was no other option than winning really," said No 8 Read, after a 33-18 victory over the Waratahs in March in a game that had already been earmarked as a tribute to 29 miners who died on the South Island's West Coast in November last year. "It's pretty hard to put into words. Hopefully we've done a small part to lift people's spirits."

Winning a few sports matches means little against the horrific scale of a shattered city, but for the thousands of Crusaders supporters who followed the side to Nelson that night the torch at least flickered. Rugby is something the people of their region have always been good at – and here was proof that their greatest strength remained solid. Unshaken.

Blackadder for one recognised the value of a small spark of optimism. "I've never been more proud as a coach," he said after that match. "With everything that's been going on – to get the win for our people, it's just hard to describe." From that victory, momentum built. They put on a showcase for the game in London in March and doused the Stormers in Cape Town despite a plague of injuries that saw open-side flanker Matt Todd move to the wing before half-time.

The Crusaders' recipe has always featured great players in key roles; this team is no different. Carter is fed by All Black half-back Andy Ellis (having a superb season); outside the All Black fly-half is Sonny Bill Williams (who, oddly, found time this season to box six rounds against Tongan gospel singer Alipate Liava'a, winning by a unanimous points decision after six rounds). The props are the fearsome Franks brothers, while at lock, Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock are granite. McCaw is unmatchable, while his understudy Todd is the New Zealand's Next Top Flanker.

As a pack they are dominant in all set pieces and rarely bettered at the breakdown. While Williams and his midfield partner Robbie Fruean might have been exposed on the backfoot, they rarely find themselves in that position, so strong is the pack, so good the supply of ball.

The Crusaders of 2011 even have the happy knack of turning to journeymen in an injury crisis and finding they are mistake-free and unflappable.

One look at the globe tells you why home advantage has always weighed heavily in this competition. Still, Blackadder's red-and-black machine has eaten up the miles while topping the New Zealand conference with 11 wins from 16 matches.

New Zealand players departing for club rugby in England or the South of France cite the rigours of Super Rugby's hectic travel schedule – and that's when they play half their games at home. A team based in Dunedin can find themselves hauling through Auckland, Brisbane, Perth and Cape Town before rounding off their travels with a bloody pounding at the hands of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha in Pretoria.

The upside? Matfield and Botha have to copy the journey back the other way. But not this time.

Schalk Burger, the Crusaders' rival captain today, perhaps senses the neutrals' sympathy settling upon the opposition.

"There are some terrible things that happened over there and the Crusaders have pulled together remarkably well this season," Burger said. "They've done Christchurch proud and they'll be determined to win this one. But they've won seven – it feels like 700 – trophies, and we haven't won any. We came close last year and we've worked hard to put ourselves in this position again."

Victory against the Stormers today would see the Crusaders' 2011 odometer pass 100,000km as they fly off for one more match. It's their 10th semi-final in as many years. Few – perhaps even Burger – would really begrudge this remarkable crusade going one step further.

Campaign On The Road

Auckland (19 Feb) v Blues, Lost 22-24

Wellington (26 Feb) v Hurricanes; match cancelled due to Christchurch earthquake

Nelson (4 Mar) Waratahs, Won 33-18

Nelson (11 Mar) Brumbies, W 52-10

Dunedin (19 Mar) Highlanders, W 44-13

Twickenham (27 Mar) Sharks, W 44-28

Timaru (9 Apr) Bulls, W 27-0

Tauranga (15 Apr) Chiefs, W 34-16

Nelson (23 Apr) Highlanders, L 18-26

Perth, Aus (30 Apr) W'trn Force, W 42-30

Cape Town, SA (7 May) Stormers, W 20-14

Bloemfontein, SA (14 May) Cheetahs, L 20-33

Napier (21 May) Chiefs, W 25-19

Brisbane, Aus (29 May) Reds, L 16-17

Timaru (11 Jun) Blues, W 23-16

Wellington (18 Jun) Hurricanes, W 16-9

Nelson (25 Jun) Sharks, W 36-8