April 15, 2007
It was All Black and Crusaders captain Richard McCaw’s first appearance in Super rugby, but it is not a moment he remembers with any particular fondness.
Because while the young flanker was only on the field for a handful of minutes as a replacement, his introduction came in a contest where the Hurricanes smashed the Crusaders 41-29 at Jade Stadium.
That match might have been six years ago, and the Hurricanes might not have won from five subsequent trips to Christchurch, but it is a memory that McCaw still believes has relevance looking ahead to Friday night’s blockbuster Rebel Sport Super 14 clash at Jade Stadium.
“The Hurricanes are a huge threat all over the field, the same now as they were back then,” McCaw says.
“They just smashed us in that particular game all over the park. Their side of that year had dangerous ball runners like Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu, and the current team is not too different. It’s going to be a huge game for us.”
The Hurricanes of 2001 ventured south with a not too dis-similar record to that of this year’s outfit.
While they were still in the semi-final hunt, as are this year’s ‘Canes class, they arrived having dropped their previous three matches, and with their backs firmly against the wall.
That encouraged a carefree attacking approach, and it worked spectacularly, with the Hurricanes scoring five tries to two. Cullen supplied two, having also bagged a pair on the only other occasion that the Canes avoided defeat at Jade – during 1999’s 18-18 draw.
Lomu, Tana Umaga, who will be back on Friday night, and Paul Steinmetz also collected five-pointers during the Hurricanes’ maiden success on Crusaders’ soil.
If the visitors are to repeat that success this year, they will need to give the ball plenty of air to get their dangerous ball carriers into the game.
History suggests that the Hurricanes are going to really hurt an unfortunate opponent at some stage when they do, so the Crusaders are going to have to repeat their excellent defensive work of recent weeks in order to ensure that the ‘Canes are not allowed to make the quick off-loads they seek.
Although Colin Cooper’s side have been down on tries this season, they will arrive in Christchurch coming back into form, having claimed just their second try-scoring bonus point of the competition during last Friday night’s 37-15 conquest of the Cheetahs.
A first ever ‘Grand Slam’ of the New Zealand leg of the competition still beckons for the Hurricanes, with the team already having accounted for the Blues (23-22) and Chiefs (39-32) thus far in 2007.
The ‘Canes will also be armed with the confidence that Wellington’s twin Air New Zealand Cup wins over Canterbury from last season has given them, especially in the sudden death quarter-final where the capital side crushed a Crusaders-laden Canterbury team 36-23, after at one stage blowing out to a 36-9 advantage.
The memory of that humiliation hasn’t been forgotten by the Canterbury players, 11 of whom from that starting XV could front for the Crusaders on Friday night.
Their record against the Crusaders apart, the Hurricanes have improved significantly, in terms of their returns against the other New Zealand sides, since ex Crusaders’ assistant Cooper took charge in 2003.
Having not beaten the Blues for nine years in Super rugby, Cooper has guided his side to wins against that side in the last three – twice cracking the Auckland-based outfit at Eden Park.
Wins against the Highlanders and Chiefs have also become a more regular occurrence although toppling the Crusaders remains the ‘Canes’ ultimate – with Cooper having achieved that just once in seven attempts, when the Hurricanes out-muscled their opponents 37-20 at the Cake Tin in 2004.
That’s a statistic sure to provide Cooper with plenty of motivation as he brings his side south. There’s also the small matter of their future in the competition, which is pretty much dependent on success – with a try-scoring bonus point if possible – in order to retain a semi-final lifeline for another week.
And while the Crusaders have won five in a row since returning from South Africa, the side returns to Jade aware that it can ill afford a slip up as it builds momentum towards the business end of the season.
The battle lines have been drawn, and it is a prospect that clearly appeals to the public, with ticket sales already brisk.
Heading into match week, in excess of 17,000 tickets have been sold, which should ensure a fantastic atmosphere and the biggest home crowd thus far of the 12th Crusade.
Picture : Richie, Dan Carter and other team-mates attending a Crusaders match some years ago...