A couple of months ago, the Crusaders had a victory so unconvincing and uninspired, I self-righteously declared the death of rugby. In a fever of purposeful outrage, I then fasted for three days and turned my back on the Super 14. I haven’t looked back since. So, in the small hours of Sunday morning, with a healthy dose of skepticism, I reluctantly flicked on the TV to watch the semi-final match-up between the Bulls and the Crusaders.
The Crusaders have a rich history of terrific first-five eighths, stoic captains and winning. Some people don’t like that. Or to state the obvious, some people just don’t like the Crusaders. They are, for some, just too bland. It’s as though people have a moral aversion to victory without self-conscious displays of style, they can’t see the beauty in the formality of a disciplined 15 man game, all those straight lines, patient kicks and measured passes. Oh well, those people can have Carlos and his banana kicks, I’ll take Mehrtens skinny white legs and a well targeted skip pass.
But this years Crusaders displayed a perverse pleasure in defense and regimented attack that would test even the most loyal supporter. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but it just didn’t seem like they were playing rugby. Somehow they had cheated the system and were winning with an odd form non-attack. This was half-rugby. With a largely new team, Todd Blackadder had chosen the morally questionable path of focusing on only one part of the game, defense. The Crusaders scored the second to least points this competition, but allowed the least too. Defense wins champions for sure, but it doesn’t win you friends. Or fans.
Had the Crusaders won it all, they’d be the least deserving champion since last week’s American Idol winner Chris was gifted the title by America’s conservative red states, who refused to vote for the flamboyant but wildly talented Adam Lambert.
(As an aside, what a great finals match-up that was. The first song of the night saw a miscalculation by Adam, entering to copious dry ice like an extra from Twilight, only to see Chris nail a version of Ain’t No Sunshine. Game on. The only way Adam could come back was by literally channeling a black women in A Change Is Gonna Come. This was made even more impressive when Chris performed a version of What’s Going On that was so laidback it made Jack Johnson look like a member of Rammstein. I’m still shocked he took this competition out. Shame on you America. I digress.)
Given their humble ability and commitment to zero offensive ambition, it was slightly weird to see the Crusaders jump out to 20-7 lead in the first twenty minutes. Kicks were going to the right corners, the ball was moving well and, my goodness, the backs were showing an interest in scoring trys! What’s more, they were catching the ball regularly. I’m not sure how many knock-ons there were in this game, but it felt like a bunch less than games I’d seen played in New Zealand. This was actually looking like rugby as I had remembered it – fluid, fast and skillful. What the hell was going on?
Afternoon rugby is what was going on. Why were there less knock-ons? Because the players could feel their fingers. There was also no dew on the ball and no fog in the air. South Africa got to see a free flowing rugby game this weekend, in New Zealand we could hardly see our semi-final. Has there ever been a clearer (or murkier) example of why night rugby is such a miscalculation?
In the end the game was decided by the share will of Steyn’s boot, slotting four drop goals and destroying the Crusaders hopes for another title. It was impressive to see a player single handedly take over a game like that, a very rare thing in rugby. As for the Crusaders, it was a crazy run, built on the back of determination, limited skill and the ghosts of the franchise past. They’ll win it next year.