OPINION: Twelve months ago thousands of neutral rugby fans were backing the Crusaders.
After the horrors of the two earthquakes, we hoped Christchurch could derive some shreds of momentary joy from the performance of their rugby team. No more. Some of us now hope that any team but the Crusaders wins the Super Rugby.
Richie McCaw's post-match eloquence and decency is in contrast to his coach's one-eyed remarks and hides a multitude of sins. Too many of the Crusaders intimidate referees, take cheap shots at the opposition and serially cheat around the ruck and maul.
It is a cultural malaise that is presumably encouraged by the coaching staff and sets a terrible example to young players around the country.
Let's deal with the intimidation of referees first, because this is a problem that is affecting all levels of rugby in the country. McCaw says far more than he should to referees and uses his status to influence games.
Too often the Crusaders are officiated by New Zealand refs who are clearly in awe of the man. Instead of telling McCaw to shut up, they hang on every word.
Bryce Lawrence, a ref who facilitated a Crusaders victory against the Reds earlier this season, is the worst offender.
Don't take my word for it. Before the match against the Hurricanes Sean Fitzpatrick said: "Richie has had the wood on him [Lawrence]”.
This is a former All Blacks captain saying that McCaw has control of a referee. Michael Lynagh then added: “He [Lawrence] appears lenient towards the Crusaders.”
After the game Fitzpatrick said: “I thought they [the Canes] didn't always get the rub of the green. I thought the referee was pretty harsh on them on a number of occasions, especially at the breakdown.”
Not according to Todd Blackadder. The Crusaders coach said after his team's defeat: “There were two tries that shouldn't have been awarded, for a start. These things they hurt you and they kill you.”
Even though in the opinion of many, including a former All Blacks captain, the ref favoured the Crusaders overall, Blackadder still gave him the bird.
The Crusaders work on referees as a group. Andy Ellis plays the nice cop, giving the refs a pat, trying to keep them onside. Kieran Read, like McCaw, uses his growing status to get at refs.
How often have we seen his look of wide-eyed amazement followed by a querying, some would say dissenting, shake of his head.
Against the Chiefs, Corey Flynn was warned by referee Steve Walsh for appealing too loudly. Ellis, of course, reacts to his team-mate's rebuke by patting Walsh sympathetically.
He would have done better to have told his forwards to desist because Luke Romano then appealed for a crooked lineout throw and pumped his fist at the opposition after getting the decision. Charming.
Yet unlike the Crusaders, the Chiefs' coaching staff didn't whinge after the defeat. They could have justly pointed out that Romano's try should have been disallowed because one of the Franks brothers was offside at the kick and, far from retreating, was actually trying to play the ball.
They could have pointed out that Sam Whitelock was off his feet when he drove Ellis over the line, despite Lyndon Bray's very odd assertion to the contrary.
They could have asked why not one Crusaders player was binned as they serially cheated in the final, desperate two minutes. Ah, but you don't bin Sir Richie.
The Chiefs could conclude from all this that intimidation of referees is something that works. How on earth did Vinny Munro award those two TMO tries against the Force at the weekend?
Nathan Sharpe was complimentary about the Crusaders afterwards, while wryly observing: “They scored four tries in the first half. Not sure how they got a couple of them but they did.”
When the points are added up at the end of the season, young, inexperienced, quiet sides like the Canes and the Brumbies lose out. You could even call them disciplined sides, but the lesson is that discipline doesn't pay.
The Crusaders haven't had the best of seasons, but they have controlled enough refs to start the playoffs at home. They shouldn't even be there.
When junior players see the Crusaders prospering through verbal intimidation, is it any wonder that they imitate the country's top players. Last week a Wairarapa ref retired after 20 years because he was fed up with the abuse.
"Enough is enough,” he said. “The union has to ensure that those who act outside the spirit of the game are held to account."
They could start with the Crusaders. Apart from the intimidation of refs, Romano and the Franks brothers frequently hit late and dangerously. The Crusaders forwards are also the most cynical bunch at the tackle area.
When they have the ball, they hold and obstruct. When they are the tackler, they rarely roll away and if they do, it is towards the opposition halfback who they "accidentally" impede.
The home crowd don't appear to care, so long as their team wins. Far too many booed the referee at the weekend when he quite correctly disallowed two tries, one for a grotesquely forward pass, the other when Adam Whitelock was in danger of getting to the tryline ahead of the ball, he was so far offside.
Despite plenty of individual brilliance and decency, the Crusaders have become an unappealing bunch. Maybe something decent died when Brad Thorn left.
Whatever the cause, I hope the Crusaders lose and come back next season with a proper respect for referees.
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