Thursday, March 03, 2011

Crusaders' Super mountain to climb

Just thinking about rugby seems surreal.

Ten days may have passed since Christchurch was brought to its knees by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake, but the horrific events that day continue to dominate everyone's thoughts and conversations and interfere with their daily routines.

Like their fellow South Islanders, the Crusaders players have been deeply affected by the natural disaster and for many of them, if not all, preparing for tonight's Super rugby match against the Waratahs at Nelson's Trafalgar Park will register as the most difficult assignment of their professional rugby careers.

Yet, like many members of the public who have returned to work over the past week, even as the search for bodies in the broken city's rubble has continued, the Crusaders have been forced to get back to business. It may only be rugby, but it is what pays the wages.

With the damaged AMI Stadium still taped off, the advantage of playing on their home turf has been negated and the familiar routines of sleeping in their own beds and spending time with friends and family have gone.

While there is no doubt the parochial Nelson crowd will urge the Crusaders along tonight, no-one is expecting miracles.

Even before taking the field, the players have a psychological mountain to conquer. Some have been forced out of their homes and all will have friends and colleagues who have lost their lives, properties and businesses.

Earlier this week, coach Todd Blackadder said any player still grappling with the enormity of the natural disaster would not be listed in his playing 22.

In reality he will not know just how the traumatic events have affected his men's concentration until the match kicks off.

"I have got a game to win. I have got to best prepare this team to go and get a win. You put all your personal feelings aside and we have to get on with the task at hand," he said.
"My job is to make sure that we are best prepared to go and win a game and that is going to be done properly, I can assure you of that."

As a player, Blackadder was admired by his comrades for his tenacity – his refusal to down tools while others were flapping a white flag.

It is that sort of mental toughness he will hope his troops can carry into tonight's match. Without influential skipper Richie McCaw, who is still recovering from foot surgery, he will turn to veterans Brad Thorn, Dan Carter, Kieran Read and Corey Flynn to keep prodding their team-mates along when their shoulders begin to sag.

Although the Waratahs have expressed their sympathies in recent days, they will be licking their lips and there will be no compassion as they attempt to register their first win over the Crusaders since 2004.

Bolstered by the return of skipper Phil Waugh, who has made a miraculous return after initially being expected to be sidelined for three months with a damaged bicep, the Waratahs will aim to clobber the Crusaders with the defensive physicality that knocked the stuffing out of the Queensland Reds in last weekend's 30-6 rout in Sydney.

To douse that fire the Crusaders might have to get their shots in early. It could require a jolting tackle, a destructive scrum or even an energy-sapping lineout drive to give them the belief they can win.

In normal circumstances, the Crusaders would be favoured to win tonight. But there has been nothing normal about this buildup since the events of February 22.

- The Press

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