Thanks for the support, but why turn nasty?
Defying the odds has become a trademark of the Crusaders over the years.
Their very first title back in 1998 came off a logic-defying run that took them from the bottom of the table to the final at Eden Park, where they ended the Blues' two-year reign.
In 2000 they beat the Brumbies in Canberra on a freezing night in which the home side absolutely monopolised possession but couldn’t break the Crusaders' resolve.
Even in 2011 when they didn’t win, they were forced to play all of their games away from Christchurch after the earthquake and still made the final.
It’s a legacy to be proud of, but one that creates a pressure and expectation all of its own, and must be very hard to live up to.
The Crusaders went to Cape Town feeling the heat after a 2 and 2 start to the season and under-strength following a run of injuries and the unavailability of new father Dan Carter. To come away from Newlands with four points says a lot what lies beneath that red and black, or in Saturday’s case, white jersey.
Two comments I made last week might bear revisiting.
I mentioned that the match would test the Crusaders' depth, and it did. They have a deep squad, and even deeper resolve.
The other point was the influence of Andries Bekker and whether he could repeat his awesome performance of the Brumbies game.
The Crusaders' game plan seemed hell bent on making sure that he would not. They didn’t allow him to maraud with ball in hand, and targeted him at lineout time, where Sam Whitelock was a clear points winner. It’s important to note that while Whitelock had his All Black teammate Luke Romano in the engine room to help pile on the pressure, Bekker has been operating without Eben Etzebeth.
A clear sign that they were getting under Bekker's skin was the way he continued to call the ball to himself to try and win his battle, but this played into the Crusaders' hands, because they knew where it was going and they were able to win some important late turnovers.
It also meant the Crusaders could kick deep knowing they were winning the lineout battle and were able to pin the Stormers back for long periods, which builds pressure and creates penalty chances at goal.
Even so, the Stormers showed fantastic fight themselves and against any lesser, less determined defence, would surely have won.
There was a contrast in strategy on attack, where the Stormers again looked to load up their ball carriers and try to break down the defence by crashing through it, which will work in most games, but not when met by equal force on or behind the gain line. There were no attempts to get behind the defence by offloading in the tackle, which is one other area where the Crusaders gained a slight, but telling edge….they offloaded six times, including Sam Whitelock’s to create the Matt Todd try.
I note that Elton Jantjies is again under fire. He is a wonderfully talented player who we thought could spark something extra in the Stormers attack, but he looks to be feeling the pressure, maybe lacking in confidence, and at times a square peg trying to fill a round hole. He either needs one good game to get his season going, or some down time to restore his confidence. A tough call for the coach given the focus of attention on the young man.
I’m not suggesting this one result, or the above issues are going to decide the championship, or that the Crusaders will win the competition and the Stormers can’t, nothing of the sort.
It was just an example of how for one game, on one day, one team got its strategy right and carried it off in a match between two class outfits.
It was an epic match of test match intensity, and I might add controlled by a referee whose calm authority and ability to think quickly and clearly in the pressure moments is second to none.
What is equally fascinating is how these two sides will respond.
Last year a stronger Crusaders team won in Cape Town and lost the next week to the Cheetahs. Now they must take on the Sharks in Durban, a team in good form, refreshed by a week off, forewarned in every respect about the Crusaders, and having been able to take note of what they do well, and how and where they might be broken down. I suspect this will be even harder to win.
The Stormers, meanwhile, must go to Bloemfontein and try and tame the Cheetahs, who are running amok right now. What a clash in styles!
I suspect this will be won on defence, which tilts it in favour of the Stormers, but the distribution of the log points will again emphasise how difficult it is going to be for South Africa to have multiple representation in the playoffs in such a tight, tough conference.
The Bulls were desperately unlucky to not get a draw in Canberra. They fought really well to level, and must feel sick to the stomach about losing in such fashion.
Much has been made about the final penalty.
The Aussie commentators deemed it harsh, in the knowledge that it was probably going to win the game for the Brumbies, but it was a penalty. The Bulls player was isolated, and the Brumbies man had rights to the ball and was supporting his own body weight through the crucial moments of the play. Refs bosses have confirmed Jonathan White called it correctly.
My argument is that it should not have got to that fateful ruck. The Brumbies should have been penalised for offside at the previous phase when their number 6 came up before the ball was taken from the ruck (in line with a change of interpretation introduced a couple of seasons ago). This had the effect of forcing the Bulls to change direction, with the ball being passed to a player who was not expecting it, and his instinctive response was to run it up rather than risk trying to kick it out. Again, White has been backed by his bosses on this call, but I’m not so sure.
Should the Bulls have cleared anyway? Probably, but they were still unlucky not to share the points with an outstanding Brumbies side, and on top of the tough hand they were dealt in Brisbane their chances have taken a big hit.
The Highlanders are just as aggrieved over two crucial calls made by Jaco Peyper late in the Dunedin game against the Reds which had a big impact on the result. As John Lennon once sang, nobody loves you when you’re down and out.
Finally I note there has been some more bad blood in Cape Town over the “Cape Crusaders”.
New Zealanders have always been touched by the support the All Blacks get in Cape Town, which goes back to the 1970 tour when the New Zealand Rugby Union gave an ultimatum that there would be no visit unless Maori players (and, as it turned out a NZ-born Samoan in BG Williams) were allowed into the country.
The Cape coloured community adopted that ground-breaking, if ultimately unsuccessful, All Black team and it has carried on through generations, and while it is still very much appreciated, it is a source of some bemusement to many as to why they still get this rather fanatical support after all the positive changes that have occurred in South Africa.
Now the Crusaders have been adopted as well and I’m a wee bit puzzled.
People can support who they want, it’s a free world, but I can understand why Bryan Habana was upset enough to tweet his feelings at being booed off the bus by “local” fans. That is not nice, whichever way you look at it.
The last thing we want is for something that started out 43 years ago with good intention and has generally been very good natured, to turn nasty.