The Canterbury Crusaders take on the Queensland Reds for the Super Rugby championship tomorrow after a 100,000-kilometer (62,150-mile) road trip to the final.
Forced into an itinerant existence after Christchurch’s AMI Stadium was damaged in the Feb. 22 earthquake that killed more than 180 people in New Zealand’s second-largest city, the Crusaders haven’t played a single match in their hometown.
Between them and a record-extending eighth elite southern hemisphere provincial rugby title is a Reds team that topped the regular season and lost just once at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, the Crusaders’ final stop on a journey that’s taken them as far away as London, Cape Town and Perth.
“We’ve sort of mastered the art of traveling,” Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said at a news conference yesterday. “We got here pretty early and we’ve done some good recovery. The guys are physically fit and mentally strong.”
Should the Crusaders win, their achievement in securing a professional sports championship having been forced into a season-long road trip may be unprecedented.
“It’s horribly unusual circumstances,” Douglas Booth, an executive member of the Australian Society for Sports History, said in a phone interview. “It’s a phenomenal distance. I can’t think of any comparative example.”
A first Super Rugby title since 2008 would also provide a fillip to their quake-stricken hometown, according to Dick Tayler, president of the Canterbury Rugby Supporters’ Club.
New Zealand is grappling with how to rebuild Christchurch as the city’s 350,000 residents struggle to cope with daily aftershocks from earthquakes that devastated its center in September and February. Two aftershocks on June 13 toppled buildings in the central business district.
Officials have identified about 650 properties that need to be demolished including many heritage buildings in the downtown area. On June 23, New Zealand’s government offered to buy 5,000 homes primarily in parts of the city’s eastern suburbs where the land has been assessed as unsuitable for rebuilding. Another 10,000 properties may also be condemned.
“There are parts of the city where people are absolutely desperate because their houses are ruined and their lives are in turmoil,” Tayler said in a telephone interview. “The Crusaders’ performances have given a lot of people a little glimmer of hope each week. A win would be special to everyone.”
The Crusaders became rugby nomads after the 36,000-seat AMI Stadium, which was also scheduled to host seven Rugby World Cup matches in September and October, was damaged and made unplayable.
“It’s not just about hitting the road, it’s been about uncertainty until quite late in the piece as to which road to hit,” Crusaders Chief Executive Officer Hamish Riach said in a phone interview. “The logistics have been a really big job.”
Some employees have been more affected than others having been forced out of their homes and into caravans, Riach said. A Crusaders director was among the victims of the Feb. 22 temblor.
The franchise’s finances have also suffered as costs soared on travel and revenue from home games dropped. The New Zealand Rugby Union and Canterbury Rugby Union provided interim loans to help the Crusaders keep paying the bills, Riach said.
“We’re having a very, very difficult year financially,” he said, declining to provide further details.
Their travels to the final haven’t been unhindered either.
Team captain Richie McCaw, a licensed pilot, helped arrange a charter for their last regular-season game on a former U.S. military DC-3 aircraft after a volcanic ash cloud grounded commercial flights in New Zealand. Their journey to Cape Town for the semifinals took about 22 hours following delays and an extra refueling stop in Perth, and the trip to Brisbane from South Africa was also disrupted by delays.
The Crusaders are the bookmakers’ favorites for the title after becoming the first team since 2000 to win a Super Rugby playoff game outside its country by beating the Stormers. The Reds won 17-16 when the teams met in the regular season in Brisbane on May 29.
“We’re confident that we can go out and do the job we need to do,” Reds captain James Horwill said today at a news conference. “I guess the public out there see it otherwise.”
The Reds are also representing a region devastated by natural disaster earlier this year as they seek a first title in rugby’s professional era. Suncorp Stadium was under water following January floods in Queensland and the state was hit by a cyclone on Feb. 3 that led to the loss of 37 lives.
Crusaders lock Brad Thorn, a former rugby league player with the Brisbane Broncos, said there was a “special” significance to teams from Christchurch and Queensland making the final.
“For me, this game is pretty darn important,” Thorn, 36, said at a news conference. “It’s hard for me to get across what I’m saying but this is something for the people back there, and maybe the Reds feel the same way for Queensland people.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Baynes in Sydney at firstname.lastname@example.org