The Sharks have traditionally been a formidable foe for the Crusaders. TONY SMITH looks back at a pivotal point in their rivalry.
Every dynasty has its genesis somewhere. The Crusaders' seed of inspiration flowered 16 years ago in the South African coastal city of Durban.
Cast back through the Canterbury-based franchise's storied history and you will discover many milestones on the pathway to seven Super rugby championships.
But it's fair to say two back-to-back, business-end wins over the Sharks in 1998 were among the most seminal moments.
Peter Sloane, the Crusaders' assistant-coach in 1998, and Tabai Matson, who played centre then, agrees those matches were a "turning point".
Sloane - now settled in Christchurch again after coaching in the UK and Japan - says the victories over the Sharks, in the final round-robin match and a week later in the semifinal, reinforced a sense of self-belief that still serves the Crusaders well today.
Consider the backdrop. In 1997, Wayne Smith, a former Canterbury Ranfurly Shield era hero and All Black, and Sloane, a nuggety Northland and ex-All Blacks hooker, took over a Crusaders squad loaded with potential but low on morale.
The red-and-blacks had finished dead last in the inaugural Super 12 season in 1996. They improved to sixth in 1997, achieving their first win away from home.
Sloane says a new culture was needed. Some of the Crusaders had fallen into bad habits. "Timekeeping wasn't all that flash."
Matson believes the Crusaders' eventual success flowed from a young Canterbury team's 1994 Ranfurly Shield victory. "But it took us four years to learn how to be pros."
Expectations were still low in 1998, outside Christchurch, at least. A Sydney rugby critic had ranked the Crusaders as the weakest squad on paper that year. Other "experts" opined that the South Island should only have one Super 12 team, yet both the Crusaders and the Highlanders would go on to make the semifinals that season.
The Crusaders weren't a team of champions - All Blacks halves Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens apart - but a champion team was hatched.
After a stuttering start - three losses in the first four rounds - the Crusaders began to build momentum. Going into the last regular-season match, they had won six on the bounce, despite losing Marshall to a season-ending injury.
But a visit to Durban in 1998, with semifinal hosting rights at stake, was a watershed.
"Back then, Durban was a pretty tough place to go to," Sloane said.
Matson - now a Crusaders assistant-coach - runs through a rollcall of the Sharks' stellar servants. "They had the Rolls Royce [Andre] Joubert at fullback ... and [Henry] Honiball at 10 [first five-eighth]." Springbok Stefan Terblanche was on the wing. Kiwi Kevin Putt was at halfback. And that was just the backline.
Captain Gary Teichmann led a Springbok-stacked pack that included try-scoring roly poly prop Ollie le Roux.
Were the Crusaders contenders or pretenders? The Sharks - runners-up in 1996 and semifinalists in '97 - were clearly going to be the litmus test.
The Crusaders did have a Loe in the front row, Glenmark stalwart Stu, not All Black cousin Richard - with Kevin Nepia propping on the other side of Mark Hammett.
Under-rated Aaron Flynn was at halfback for the injured Marshall. The reserves bench contained some little-known names, Elton Moncrieff, Graham Jack and Ace Tiatia.
But the pack had some pretty hard-heads. The 2014 coach Todd Blackadder was in the back row with current Crusaders manager Angus Gardiner. Recent Hurricanes coach Hammett was at hooker. A young Reuben Thorne lined up at lock alongside Norm Maxwell, who punched well above his weight, 98kg dripping wet.
Still, the super-confident Sharks fans were expecting a mismatch as they prepared to fire up their car park braiis (barbecues) to toast a victory and a home semifinal.
But they shouldn't have taken the Crusaders lightly. The Canterbury coterie had drawn 26-26 with the Sharks in Christchurch in an eventful encounter in 1997.
"The year before, we'd had all that drama with the ordering off of Stu Loe and then we ran out of hookers," Sloane remembers.
But, the Crusaders had a new strike weapon in '98. Storming Norman Berryman was carving up defences the same way Nemani Nadolo has been doing for the 2014 team.
Sloane knew Berryman from their native Northland. He wondered how the laidback, long-haired Maori free spirit would "fit into our culture" and earn acceptance from Crusaders fans. "It took him a while to settle in, but I well remember that street parade [to celebrate the 1998 title victory] and everyone was putting their hands up the way Norm did when he scored a try, and I knew he had won the people over then."
Berryman - who won just one cap for the All Blacks (ironically in Durban later in 1998) - basically lit up both games against the Sharks.
He scored two tries at Durban, scampering 65 metres for his first to open the Crusaders' account. His second was sheer class - a perfectly-executed chip and gather - to give the visitors the all-important first score of the second half.
Mehrtens - born in Durban while his parents were teaching there in the early 1970s - scorched 50m down the right-hand touchline for a try on the halftime buzzer. Hammett rumbled 20m, fending off two Sharks, to deliver the fourth, dubbed the Hammer Blow.
The Crusaders carved out a 32-20 victory, but there was no time to celebrate.
Both teams had to travel back across the Indian Ocean to Christchurch.
The semifinal at Lancaster Park a week later served as the second act in the Norman Berryman Show.
The big bloke again scored twice, in the fifth and 12th minutes, as the Crusaders stunned the Sharks by building a 20-point lead in the first quarter. The Sharks fought back courageously to lead 32-26 at one point in the second spell, with two tries to pudgy prop le Roux.
But the Crusaders came back to win 36-32 after Sharks pivot Boeta Wessels was sinbinned.
Ultimately, though, it was Berryman's brace that laid the platform for a place in the final.
The charismatic winger scampered over half the field to score his first try and later quipped: "I had a sore hammy. I looked up to see the tryline was about 60m ahead of me and I didn't want to run that far. But I thought I'd better do what's best for the team, and if it's gonna ping, it's gonna ping. I was just glad to make it there."
Matson, who played with Berryman and now coaches Nadolo, appreciates the parallels.
"When Norm was on the wing outside me, in the back of my mind, I was always thinking 'get it to Norm'. If you gave him the ball, something would always come off it. He made something out of nothing.
"It's the same with Nemani. If I was playing with him, I would give him the ball and just chase him."
The Crusaders went on to beat the Blues, against the odds in Auckland, for their ninth win on the trot and their first Super rugby crown. But slaying the Sharks was the confidence-building catalyst.
How Blackadder and Matson, students in the class of 98 and teachers now, must be hoping history repeats tonight.
- The Press
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