By TONY SMITH in South Africa
Friday, 11 May 2007
Crusaders captain Richie McCaw** says the atmosphere at the seething cauldron of Loftus Versfeld stadium is so hostile it excites him.
Leon MacDonald has had a barrage of verbal stings and barbs from the Pretoria populace from his lonely station at fullback.
Veteran forward Reuben Thorne has been to South Africa so many times he has to pause to count – 17, he reckons. He made his test debut in Pretoria in 1999. In terms of stage fright that's like pushing a teenage piano prodigy out onto the podium to play a solo with the New York Philharmonic.
But few things faze Thorne. He swears that the worst reception he's copped at Loftus was "when I was injured in 1999 and had to sit in the stands with the (Crusaders) DDs (dirty-dirties – players not required for the match-day 22)".
It was the night of the infamous last-gasp goal by Andrew Mehrtens – later to become Thorne's brother-in-law – and his two-fingered – one on each hand – salute to the shattered supporters of the Blue Bulls.
"We copped a bit of abuse – nothing too serious," Thorne said. "But they let us know we were in hostile territory."
But, for McCaw, MacDonald and Thorne, most of their memories of Loftus are pleasant ones because the Crusaders and All Blacks have won there as often as they have tasted the sharp, high-altitude tang of defeat.
**during last weekend's match
McCaw could be forgiven if his recollections were a little hazy. He got knocked out for the count in Pretoria in 2005 when he ran slap bang into a slab of prime South African beef in the burly form of Springboks prop Richard Bands. McCaw missed a month of Super 12 after that collision, but bounced back, as he usually does.
He was buffered from the bluster of the Loftus faithful last year when he watched the Crusaders win from the soundproof sanctuary of the coach's box. "But I've played a couple of test matches there and three Super (rugby) games, and it's an amazing stadium with an amazing atmosphere. They are passionate people – they love it. As a player, you feed off them. Even though it's quite hostile, it actually excites me. It's quite a unique experience."
All three Crusaders agree that Sunday's Super 14 semi-final – the first in Pretoria – will be, in McCaw's words, "more like a test match than what we've had in the past".
McDonald has a sneaking suspicion that the Loftus crowd support the Bulls with even greater gusto than they barrack for Boks. "They love the Springboks, too, but they probably get a test in Pretoria every two or three years. But this is the first time they've got a home semi-final and it's going to be that much more special for them. I'm sure the atmosphere will be bigger than a test match.
"It'd be up there as one of the toughest venues I've ever played at, really.
"There's a different atmosphere. It takes you by surprise, how fierce the crowd are, they're so passionate.
"If you don't become a test player it'll be the closest thing you experience to a test match."
MacDonald's own baptism under fire at Loftus 10 years ago was a relatively tame indoctrination. The Bulls were not in semi-final contention in 1997 and "there wasn't a full house". The crowd was in good humour because the Bulls won by one point.
"But I've played some big games here," MacDonald said. "It's a place we definitely respect. A win here is extremely hard to come by.
"For some reason, when the Bulls are playing at home, they're a different team than when they're on the road. They (seem) that much bigger and stronger."
MacDonald said the 30-28 win in 1999 "felt like we'd got out of jail".
But last year's victory, "after a draw (in Perth) and a loss (in Cape Town) in our last two games" was his highlight. "We needed to win to get a home semi-final ... It was one of those times when the game plan worked perfectly and everyone did their job. It was a really satisfying win."
"People back home were saying the wheels had come off. Richie was out, and we selected a different-looking team and it was really one of our best performances."
McCaw and Thorne will be in the thick of the action around the ruck but MacDonald will be within firing range of the fans and knows his ears will be burning.
He accepts it as an occupational hazard. "You do (get a verbal barrage) at fullback, because you're standing behind the posts quite often – but I get that from most crowds."
But at the Bull Ring he can bank on it being double the volume.
Mini resume express :
Le Loftus Stadium ne rappelle que des bons souvenirs aux Crusaders et aux All Blacks car c'est un stade ou ils perdent rarement ; mais samedi, ce sera different, "beaucoup plus 'test match' que les rencontrent precedentes" selon notre capitaine prefere.
En 2005, Richie** avait pris un coup sur ce terrain et avait manque un mois de Super 12, avant de revenir comme a son habitude...L'ambiance qui vient de ces tribunes le motive plus que tout.
**lors du match contre les Chiefs