Christchurch on a crutch! Why it’s going to be hell for Lions
SA teams have an abysmal record at the home of the Crusaders, site of this weekend’s Super Rugby final
There are places where SA rugby angels fear to tread and the bustling South Island city of Christchurch in New Zealand is one of them.
That is where the Lions will have to scale Super Rugby’s Mount Everest and become the tournament’s version of Sir Edmund Hillary. No team have won a playoff in Christchurch, let alone a final, so the mental scars run deep. The first home playoff the Crusaders hosted in 1998 against the Sharks was the closest an SA team came to winning there.
A very good Sharks side lost 36-32 to a Crusaders team that would travel to Auckland the following week to dethrone the Blues. That semifinal win was the start of a home playoff run (20/0) that is close to matching Undertaker’s famed Wrestlemania winning streak of 21/0.
Of the four current SA sides, the Lions are the only ones who have never taken part in a Christchurch playoff game, but the SA record is grim: Played five; lost five.There is also the significant matter of the Crusaders having lost only two matches against South African teams; one at the now unusable Lancaster Park (once known as the Jade Stadium from 1998-2006 and the AMI Stadium from 2007-2011) against the Bulls in 1996; and the 2014 defeat to the Sharks at the current AMI Stadium (Rugby League Park).
The Springboks themselves do not have the best of records in Christchurch: Played nine; won two; lost seven, with the last win in 1965.
Clearly there is something in the Canterbury water that reduces the ability of SA teams and has everything to do with the strength of the Crusaders.
There was nothing in the earthquake-damaged Lancaster Park that had any pretensions of inducing fear but beatings have been the norm for SA teams. The black and red wave of the Crusaders has struck paralysing fear into SA teams, and that has continued in the AMI Stadium.
What is lost in history is that the Crusaders only won their first home game against South African opposition (23-0 versus the Lions in 1997) at their fourth attempt.Draws against Western Province (Stormers) and the Sharks were sandwiched by a loss to Northern Transvaal (Bulls).
They may have lost to the Cats in Nelson in 2001 but there was an 18-year wait between the Bulls’ 34-18 triumph and the Sharks’ Frans Steyn-inspired 30-25 win. Such was the fluke nature of the Sharks’ win, they came back for a semifinal and normal beating service (38-6) resumed in earnest.
The Christchurch hoodoo is so unnerving that even in years when the Crusaders were vulnerable, good SA teams just couldn’t win. In 2009 the rapidly improving Stormers (11-7) and eventual champions Bulls (16-13) couldn’t kick the door down.
Then there is the mentally shattering fact that all SA Super Rugby sides have been subjected to 45-plus point hammerings in the city.
It is also true that New Zealand teams and the Crusaders prosper from benevolent officiating at home – but when SA teams have lost 39 out of 43 matches in Christchurch, a final is the best and worst time to be confronted with such a formidable record.
For the Lions, there is no better time to create their own mark on history. The Crusaders know this well as they are the only team to have won Super Rugby finals on the road. Their first three titles were won in Auckland, Dunedin and Canberra respectively, before waiting 17 years to become the first travelling side to win a final in South Africa.
The bad? The Lions haven’t beaten New Zealand teams this season and their one other playoff in the Land of the Long White Cloud was the 20-3 final defeat to the Hurricanes two years ago. If this isn’t the heaviest weight of history and the biggest albatross, then I don’t know what is.