Deja-vu? Well, you could certainly excuse the Crusaders coaching staff for thinking they’ve been here before as they seek to repeat their own history and win a Super rugby title from fourth on the final standings.
Marc Hinton writes for Rugbyheaven NZ that only once before in the 14 years of Super rugby has a team finished fourth in the round-robin and gone on to win the title. As it happens Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder and his two assistants, Mark Hammett, and Daryl Gibson, all played in that side. Gibson scored a crucial try in the final.
It was 1999 when the defending champions from Christchurch made it two titles in a row in the most unlikely fashion. First they had to go to the table-topping Queensland Reds in the semifinal, Blackadder’s men getting home 28-22 in a superb performance.
Then, after the talented Highlanders team of that era had upset the Stormers in Cape Town in the other semi, they found themselves having to travel down SH1 to Dunedin for a final now infamously dubbed the “Party at Tony Brown’s House”.
Talk about your gatecrashers. The Crusaders, with nowhere near the talent of their southern rivals, scraped and scrambled their way to a 24-19 victory that underlined what was to become the fabric of this uber-successful franchise.
Well, wouldn’t you know it, here they are again. Fourth once more – for the first time since 1999 – and having to do it the hard way. The funny thing is now, all these years on, no one would be in the least surprised if the Red and Blacks find a way to make a nonsense of Tim Finn’s line that “history never repeats”.
Certainly not Blues coach Pat Lam. “They’re the Crusaders, there’s a proud history there, and when the Crusaders get into finals they’ve got a big show,” he said after Saturday’s Leon MacDonald-inflicted 13-15 defeat at Eden Park.
Hammett, who was the no-nonsense hooker in the no-nonsense Crusaders of ’99, says he’s not normally one to go through ethereal exercises like comparing eras. But in this case he’s found himself doing exactly that.
“They’re all good and you don’t like to compare too much,” said Hammett before heading to South Africa. “But I have this week so I shouldn’t say I haven’t done it. I’ve compared it very much to our ‘98-99 sides where we based lot of our buildup this year around our defence, because we wanted to get back to a real tough attitude, a real work ethic.
“We know probably individually across the board we’re not as skilful as other sides. But we know as a team we can be the strongest team in the competition because we play as a team. We’ve got extremely good method.
“Perhaps we don’t have the same X-factor players, but we stick to our method, we really believe in it and we know we’re always going to be there or thereabouts because our defence is so strong.”
Funny how things come full circle, isn’t it?
That’s exactly how the Crusaders won that first threepeat of titles. In 1998 they upset a red-hot Blues team at Eden Park by being greater than the sum of their parts, ditto the next year, and in 2000 they toppled a fabulous Brumbies team 20-19 in an epic final in Canberra by simply refusing to lose, and making about a million tackles.
What’s more, through that first threepreat, they won four of their six playoff matches away. They were road warriors.
It’s why when the Crusaders went a month without a win early in the piece this season, Hammett never lost faith. Never lost belief.
“I always believe humankind can achieve quite amazing feats,” he said. “Possibly because of what we went through in ’98-99-00 when we were in exactly the same situations and I’ve seen these things come through.
“We just went solidly about our work week by week, trying to give our best effort, to learn and improve as a group, and to keep enforcing what’s made us strong over the years around out culture and values.
“And the worm does slowly turn. Whilst sometimes you don’t get results, you’re getting games amongst the team. I suppose if we were a business we would always have been making a profit at the end of each week.
“Ultimately that got us to a stage where we have been able to challenge.”
It sure has. Of the Crusaders’ eight wins this year, six have been by seven points or fewer. Keeping the theme tracking, all four of their defeats were by the same narrow margin. When you throw in a draw, this side isn’t exactly a stranger to knife-edge football.
“We’ve become really adept at playing under pressure football,” notes Hammett, “not because we’ve wanted to, more because that’s how it’s turned out.”
Speaking of history repeating, there is one potential downside to that, from a Crusaders perspective.
Their only defeat in 10 previous semifinals over the years came against the Bulls at Pretoria’s daunting Loftus Versfeld in 2007. On that occasion the third-placed Crusaders were outdueled on the big stage.
Perhaps that will be the message from Hammett and co this week. Nothing’s impossible, but then again nothing’s easy either.Tweet