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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Crusaders not just a team - they're family

Crusaders not just a team - they're family

Last updated 09:52 27/02/2011
OPINION: The Crusaders are such a big part of life in Christchurch it feels right and respectful for them to have not played this weekend.

To talk of sport at a time when so many people are grieving and suffering would itself be inappropriate if not for the fact that in Christchurch the Crusaders are more than a footy team.

They're family, deeply ingrained for more than a decade in the social fabric of the city.

Purely because of its size and diversity, it's difficult for Aucklanders to have the same sense of ownership Cantabrians do with their rugby team.

You wouldn't find more likeable, approachable people than players in the great Auckland team of the 1980s such as John Kirwan, A J Whetton, Joe Stanley, Michael Jones, and Grant Fox.

But scattered over a super city such as Auckland - where it can take more than an hour to drive across town on a good day - the chance of bumping into them at your supermarket or petrol station was remote.

Christchurch, on the other hand, is small enough for six degrees of separation to often come down to one or none.

And having been lucky enough to report on the fabulous climb of Canterbury rugby in the 1990s the most impressive thing for me was how little attitudes changed when huge success arrived.

Successive leaders such as Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans, and Todd Blackadder ensured as the years go by that any signs of elitism, an easy mindset to fall into when you're in your early 20s and earning twice or three times as much as your bank manager, are quickly stamped on. It would be fair to say that if you're an arrogant jerk when you enter the Canterbury system, you definitely won't be one when you leave.

To reinforce the behaviour, Blackadder, when he became coach, introduced the big give, a series of charity work for the squad that ranges from painting the Prebbleton Plunket rooms to landscaping for the Child Cancer Foundation. If the big gives are a formal structure to keep the team connected to the community, many of the players, even the biggest names, are naturally easy to relate to.

Just five minutes before Tuesday's devastating earthquake I was on the phone to Dan Carter, recording an interview for Radio Sport.

Despite the deluge of attention and fame that has poured on him, it was quickly clear the genial, grounded boy I first interviewed in 2003 has grown into a genial, grounded man.

He happily revealed a Carter family Christmas custom, where he puts a football in the boot before leaving the city to drive to his parents' house in Southbridge.

At some stage during the day he and his father, Neville, go out to the patch of land next door where Neville set up goalposts for a 10-year-old Dan.

"I have a few kicks, and Dad's always happy to give me plenty of advice about how I'm going."

While homeliness is one cornerstone of the Crusaders' success, it would be wrong to think the group is a rugby version of Little House on the Prairie.

Once when Blackadder was summing up some of the values that helped the Crusaders he smiled wryly and said, "It's not all sweetness and light and cups of tea. If we have to be honest, we are, and sometimes that can be bloody direct. You don't do it to hurt people, but you have to be truthful."

The truth now is that the tribulations of the Crusaders, most notably the possibility of no more games in Christchurch for weeks, if not months, is one, and not the heaviest, of a long list of burdens heaped on the city.

If there's one small light in the rugby gloom it's that consideration and affection between this team and its followers is a two- way street.

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