For plenty of New Zealand rugby fans, their second Super Rugby team is ‘anyone playing the Crusaders’, but there was one year this wasn’t the case. Jamie Wall looks back on the team’s extraordinary post-earthquake 2011 season.
“We’ll be cheering on the Lions next week”. That was the post-match reaction of Hurricanes captain Dane Coles following their semifinal loss in Johannesburg. Cue the debate about whether it’s unpatriotic to support a non-Kiwi team in the 2017 Super Rugby final.
Let’s get one thing straight here – there has always been a lot of angst between New Zealand Super Rugby teams. Everyone hated the Blues back when they were successful, then when the Crusaders started winning titles everyone hated them. There’s well-documented hatred between the Chiefs and all other teams, while the Highlanders have made a habit of making other teams resent them for their habit of getting the best out of everyone else’s discarded players.
What Coles said isn’t exactly a unanimous sentiment; it certainly shouldn’t come as any surprise. But there was one time that even the most cold-hearted one-eyed Kiwi rugby fan couldn’t help but admire the feats of a rival team.
2011 was, from a Super Rugby perspective, a long time ago. There were only 15 teams and no break in the middle of the competition. The Blues and Reds were actually good. One of this year’s finalists, the Lions, ended the season second last overall with a 3-1-12 record.
But the story of that season was that of the other team still alive in 2017 – the Crusaders. It’s one of suddenly finding themselves homeless, traveling to the other side of the world and coming within a try of winning a competition they could’ve legitimately dropped out of and no one would’ve held it against them.
On February 22nd, 2011, Christchurch was hit with an earthquake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale. Unlike other parts of the country where faultlines were well-known, Christchurch was ill-equipped for the event. The mostly stone buildings in the central city crumbled and fell; tragically, 185 people were killed.
The Crusaders’ home ground of Lancaster Park was among the many structures rendered unsafe. Added to that, the playing surface was wrecked due to the amount of silt that the quake had driven to the surface.
It happened a week into the season. The team had suffered a first round loss to the Blues, and were drawn to play the Hurricanes in Wellington in round two. There was no way that fixture could happen, given the amount of disruption the quake had caused that week. But the decision was made for the Crusaders to play out the season, making do with the resources that were still left to them.
That included a pretty handy team. Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and Kieran Read were the biggest names, but the year also was the high water mark for the careers of Robbie Fruean, Shaun Maitland and Zac Guildford. Richie McCaw sat out most of the season with injury, but a young Matt Todd was a more than useful replacement.
In a cruelly ironic twist, the Crusaders’ first game after the quake was supposed to be a tribute to another tragedy that struck the region a few months earlier. Wearing the jerseys of the tiny West Coast union to honour the 29 men who were killed in the Pike River Mine Disaster, the Crusaders ran out 34-18 winners over the Waratahs in Nelson.
Other home games were hastily rescheduled for Nelson and Timaru, however the most ambitious workaround came in the form of a proposed game at Twickenham against the Sharks. To everyone’s surprise, it got the green light. The two sides put on a memorable display of Southern Hemisphere rugby in front of 35,000 spectators, and raised almost a million dollars for the earthquake relief fund.
By the end of the round robin, the seven-time champions had fashioned an 11 win, one draw and four loss record to sit in third behind the Reds and Stormers. They managed to breeze past the Sharks again at Trafalgar Park in Nelson – a slightly less grand venue than Twickers – then surprisingly comfortably beat the Stormers in Cape Town to book a place in the final with the Reds.
By that stage the team had traveled well over 100,000 kms. These days the Sunwolves rack up that sort of distance too, but at least they know about their schedule earlier than a week into the season.
If it were a Hollywood movie, then it would’ve been the Crusaders that scored the match winning try off a piece of brilliance. Except someone read the script wrong and it was Will Genia who dashed 65 metres to score the matchwinner.
The Crusaders returned home empty-handed to a broken city. However, they’d won endless respect for their achievements against adversity.
Later in 2011, the All Blacks won their first World Cup in 24 years. Christchurch’s games were all rescheduled for other cities, and ever since fans in the Garden City have had to put up with a makeshift stadium made out of scaffolding.
All the key players bar Kieran Read have gone – Richie to retirement, Dan to a big pile of cash in France, SBW to the Chiefs, the NRL and the Blues, Maitland to his recently-discovered Scottish roots and, sadly, Fruean to indifferent form.
So while there will definitely be a lot Kiwis supporting the Lions this Sunday morning, at least the Crusaders can boast about the time that they were the only Super Rugby team everyone got in behind – and the unbelievable circumstances it took them to do it.
This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia