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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee