By Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald
Be wewy wewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.
Well, at the very least, hunting Crusaders here in Christchurch, the home city of the champion team just about to leave for our own Sydney Town for the final of the Super Rugby on Saturday night at the Olympic Stadium.
As if you didn’t know, the Crusaders have won an extraordinary seven championships in the past 19 years and, sniffing around, it is no wonder.
Everywhere I look on this shining wintry Wednesday afternoon, I see green fields stretching into the distance, populated by enormous kids running hard at each other as their teachers blow whistles and take notes. Many of these kids are Maori, oft with the bodies of hard men even though still in their teens. Goalposts in these parts are like the Christian crosses in other parts of the world: as ubiquitous as they are objects of veneration, fixed points that you can steer your life by. And so they do. These are a people, raised on the Canterbury Plains – that also looks like a series of football fields from the air, flying in – that take rugby with their mother’s milk, their father’s every utterance.
In sum, you can believe it: if you make yourself noticed in a playing pool of this depth and quality, it is because you are nothing less than exceptional. If you can go all the way to the Crusaders team and cement a place, you have to be absolutely outstanding. And if you can do all that, and stay there for over a decade, dominating, you must be Richie McCaw or Dan Carter, world-beaters by any measure – and among the best there has ever been.
All put together, it has created a team strong enough that it has not only been able to take on the world’s best provincial teams year after year and emerge triumphant, it has even been able to best the awesome power of nature itself.
For, yes, Christchurch has been famously devastated by earthquakes in recent years, bringing down buildings, devastating whole suburbs, buckling bridges and even wiping out the town’s home of rugby, Lancaster Park. But the rugby team itself has barely blinked. While other sides in the Super competition have risen and fallen, have ebbed and flowed, the Crusaders have continued to be the team to beat, the benchmark that others have judged themselves against. Sure, you beat the Sharks by 20 points, but how did you go against the ‘Saders? Exactly. Pull your head in. Until you beat them, you’re not going anywhere.
And while the mood of NSW rugby in the past week has been euphoric, doing cartwheels of joy just for being in the final after so many years of spinning wheels uselessly without getting anywhere … there is no similar emotion here.
The people of Canterbury take being in the final as their due – it is mere base camp for the final assault, the summit of the victory podium. The people I have talked to here, from taxi drivers to the kids to the people of pass-the-wine-please are not doing air punches or evincing ecstasy at all. If this is August up ahead, this must be time for the Crusaders to be in the final – and so it is.
It is calm. Resolute. Intent, building to intense. The boys have a job to do. They have to go the final mile.
And yet nor is this not just another Super Rugby grand final for them. This’un has something of the special about it.
As we love beating Poms in all things, the Kiwis love beating Australians. As country teams generally love beating city teams, the Kiwi teams well away from the big metropolises of Auckland and Wellington love nothing better than doing down city slickers of all descriptions.
All put together, it means that the Crusaders from New Zealand could have no greater satisfaction than whupping, but good, the team based in the biggest city in Australia. It’s in their DNA. It’s what they’re born to do.
After all is said and done, can our blokes beat them? As noted in the last column, I am reluctant to predict it for fear of putting the mocker on them, but it is at least possible. What will help, and I mean this, is if we Tah-gics turn up in force. Yes, the Olympic Stadium is not the greatest for watching a standard brand rugby game. A small crowd there feels, to use John Arlott’s felicitous phrase, ”like confetti in a graveyard”. But when it’s chokka, and the atmosphere is there, it is fabulous. It has been a long time between drinks, so let’s drink up big. Let’s FILL the joint, and make it far and away the biggest crowd Super Rugby has ever seen. (The record is only 55,000, which we can blow away without trying.)
Let’s see the Crusaders’ quiet intensity, and raise them raucous joy. And let the Waratahs play with precisely that spirit, which has been so gripping to watch in recent weeks.
And sure, in these parts it is rugby league that makes most of the noise, garners most of the attention, and has done for decades. But not Saturday night.
It’s like the man said: This is our time. This is our moment.
Peter FitzSimons is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.