x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

An uneven playing field for Crusaders

Despite being forced to play all their matches away, the New Zealand Rugby Union side have reached the Super 15 final.

The damaged turf at the Canterbury Crusaders’s AMI Stadium from the Christchurch earthquake in February, which left the pitch uneven and has forced the side to play all their Super games this season away.
The damaged turf at the Canterbury Crusaders’s AMI Stadium from the Christchurch earthquake in February, which left the pitch uneven and has forced the side to play all their Super games this season away.

On February 22 the devastating earthquake that shook Christchurch killed 181 people and reduced large swathes of New Zealand's second-largest city to rubble. In such circumstances it is easy to apply the thin veneer of a metaphor, but if one edifice survived that dreadful night it was the spirit built up by the Canterbury Crusaders rugby team.

The Crusaders may have lost their home after the turf in their AMI Stadium was deemed unplayable, but they subsequently embarked on a journey that has taken them to the cusp of one of team sport's greatest achievements. The Crusaders may be one of world rugby's most successful sides, boasting seven Super Rugby titles, but to reach their 11th final having played all of their 18 matches away from their home ground is remarkable.

There are few comparisons. Most football fans have heard of the Invincibles, the Arsenal team that went through the 2003/04 Premier League season unbeaten. But the Crusaders had already achieved an unbeaten season in 2002, winning the Super 12 with ease.

Unlike football, rugby relies on a team's ability to stand up and perform in the face of physical intimidation. Even the smallest element of encouragement gives a side inspiration. Much like the host Springboks' mission to unite a nation during the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, the Crusaders have used their exploits on the pitch as an adhesive to a beleaguered community.

"It's something I'll never forget; the shock on people's faces, all the traffic lights out, water gushing out in the streets, cracks in the road, traffic jams. It was a pretty scary time," said Dan Carter, the Crusaders fly-half and Super Rugby's record points scorer. "There were people coming out of their houses crying and neighbours returning home shocked. There was … silt all over the roads, fire sirens going off everywhere. It was just like a bomb site."

He said members of the All Blacks, the national side, are placed "on a pedestal here in a nation of rugby fanatics", and he felt obliged to make clear that the earthquake had shaken them, too. "You've got to make sure people know that you're just like everybody else, you're just human, going through the same emotional roller-coaster.

"I didn't know my neighbours that well," Carter said. "Now I do because we've been working so closely together on a big clean-up. If there can be any positive to come out of such a disaster, it's the real fantastic sense of community which has built up here."

If Carter has been doing his bit off the pitch, on the pitch he has been chipping in, too. Last weekend, he helped the Crusaders pull off one of the biggest upsets in Super Rugby's 18 years of competition when the team beat the Stormers in Cape Town 29-10 to set up today's final in Brisbane against the Reds. No team had won an away semi-final since 1999, and the New Zealand franchise defied a 11,265-kilometre journey through nine time zones to beat history, as laid out by the statisticians.

But helping clear up the physical mess in the city and performing every week on the pitch is just a small part of what this tightly knit squad have given to the cause.

The trip to South Africa capped a ferocious schedule, which has seen the squad travel over 96,000km in four months, the bulk of which included a whistle-stop visit to Twickenham, in England, where they beat the Sharks 44-28 in front of 35,000 fans. Around Dh25 per ticket was donated to the Red Cross earthquake appeal in New Zealand. The giving does not stop there.

Sonny Bill Williams, the Crusaders' centre, is also a professional heavyweight boxer. His contract makes provision for three bouts a year and last month he dissected the Tongan Alipate Liava'a to score a unanimous decision. Williams, who fought during the Crusaders' bye weekend in round 16 of the tournament, pledged Dh305,000 of his television earnings to provide aid for victims of the catastrophe.

Williams said the event was particularly alarming because his sister was visiting Christchurch at the time of the earthquake and was in one of the hardest-hit areas.

"It was pretty scary because she was studying in town," he said. "It was just that feeling you get where you cannot get through because all of the phones are down. It's a yuck feeling, a feeling you don't ever want to feel. Some people had the same feeling, but it didn't come right for them. They never get to see their friends and family again."

A week later the off-loading former Rugby League player featured in the 23-16 victory over the Blues. What is Wladimir Klitschko doing this weekend?

Despite this pro-active approach from the squad, the seismic activity did not end with the events of February 22. Christchurch has been beset by aftershocks and the city was hit particularly hard at the beginning of June when a magnitude 5.5 quake rocked the city on June 6. One week later, a 6.3-magnitude shock hit.

Just days afterwards, the ash cloud from Chile's Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano caused severe travel disruption in South America, Australia and New Zealand, and with Christchurch airport closed once again the Crusaders looked to their captain, Richie McCaw, to provide leadership. McCaw happens to be the patron of the Southern DC-3 Trust, and the group arranged a charter flight for the squad in a stylish, 67-year-old Douglas DC-3 aircraft which flies at a lower level than a modern jet. As seats were limited on the flight, members of the Crusaders support staff travelled with team equipment by ferry from Picton in the South Island to Wellington.

The final denouement in their travel nightmares occurred earlier this week when their flight out of Johannesburg was delayed and they missed their connection to Sydney. As a result, the advance party arrived three hours behind schedule, and to make matters worse Luke Romero, the lock, did not arrive at all as he was quarantined by Qantas after suffering chicken pox.

Said Macaw: "You get a choice, don't you? You can use travel as an excuse and everyone will probably pat you on the back and say, 'Oh well, that's fair enough.' We made a decision when all the carnage happened at home that we would stand up for the people at home and for what the Crusaders mean."

It is easy to train the magnifying glass on the Crusaders, but in the rush to put their season into context it is easy to forget that just seven months ago the Reds' home, Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, was 2.5 metres under flood water as Queensland endured its worst flooding in 37 years. Around 30 people died during the natural disaster and 19 of the Reds' squad spent a day handing out sandbags while Rod Davies, the team's wing, manned a telephone during a televised telethon.

The Faingaa brothers, Anthony and Saia, gave their subsequent match fee to flood relief, while Quade Cooper, the team's gifted fly-half, tweeted: "Been out at Stafford depot all day filling, passing and packing sandbags. Best thing is seeing how many people are turning up and helping."

Only six trans-Tasman Sea finals have been played since the inaugural Super Rugby tournament in 1996. New Zealand teams lead 5-1, but in the history of the tournament only one side has managed to lift the trophy on foreign soil. The Crusaders beat the Brumbies in 2000 in Canberra.

Justin Marshall, the former All Black and Crusaders scrum-half, believes that the momentum is with his former teammates.

"It's clear adversity has been a galvanising force among this united squad," he said. "These are the traits I believe they will again display at Suncorp Stadium, which will culminate in them beating the Reds in the final and achieving what no other Super Rugby team has done before; win all of their games on the road.

"Use the superlative of your choice."