Red and black fans boost Crusaders

'We've got the best crowd'

BECK ELEVEN
Last updated 11:06 26/07/2014
robin leary, susan low
JOSEPH JOHNSON

ATTENTIVE: Robin Leary and Susan Low try to make every game, home or away.

ngaire onekawa, marie courtis
JOSEPH JOHNSON
RED AND BLACK: Ngaire Onekawa, left, and Marie Courtis sit together at every home game.
crusaders fan
JOSEPH JOHNSON
HAIR RAISING: Crusaders fanatic Lesley Mora sets shirley Sweeney's hair in the Elmswood Retirement Village salon.

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Behind every good team is a great army of followers. BECK ELEVEN talks to some hardcore supporters about "their boys" ahead of tonight's Crusaders versus Sharks semifinal.

Butterflies, knots and slippery weasels are churning in the stomachs of Crusaders rugby fans.

Tonight's game is kind of a big deal. For one, there is the extra frisson of a match on home turf. Two, it is a semifinal. And three, this is the first time since 2008 that the Crusaders have hosted a Super Rugby semi.

Never mind how the players are feeling, things are about to get intense off the field. Canterbury sport fans have long held a place in New Zealand lore for being "one-eyed". The term is warranted. We're full of passion - and its niggly offsider of being a little ungracious to opponents.

If you've been to a live game, you will know the atmosphere is different. Yes, the pub is a lot warmer but you won't see knights on horseback charging through your lounge.

That pre-match spectacle to the tune of Vangelis' stirring music, Conquest of Paradise, gives Ngaire Onekawa, 73, and Marie Courtis, 69, goosebumps just talking about it.

They met through the Canterbury Rugby Supporters' Club more than 20 years ago. Both diehard, excitable and vocal fanatics, they are season pass holders and sit together every home game.

"I yell too much for my husband," says Courtis, a Hokitika girl.

Courtis' father and brothers used to catch a midnight train to Christchurch for the big games and take turns queuing overnight for tickets to Lancaster Park. She caught the rugby bug too and barely keeps her bottom on the seat when play gets tense.

Onekawa's love of rugby started as a teenager. She would play netball in Hagley Park then bike to Lancaster Park to watch rugby.

Once, while watching Crusaders' great Andrew Mehrtens kick an important goal on television, Onekawa kissed the screen. The pair love "our boys".

The new stadium, they agree, brings the action closer but is "crammed and cold". To that end they would love a covered stadium but until then, they have a decent collection of warm red and black clothing.

They each wear "SportsEars" headphones which gives them live commentary and referees' decisions.

"The buildup is amazing. We've got the best crowd," says Courtis.

"And we've never had rain. Maybe a bit before or after but not during," says Onekawa.

Onekawa is known at her New Brighton tattooist as "the rugby lady". She has the Crusaders shield and sword logo on one forearm and a small World Cup trophy on the other with "2011" inked underneath it. It's a reminder of New Zealand's World Cup win but mostly of the heartbreak of having tickets to games that were cancelled in Christchurch due to the quake.

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Onekawa and Courtis are both confident of a win tonight but Onekawa says: "We'll have to get our rosary beads out."

"Oh, He doesn't listen to me any more," finishes Courtis. She will be blowing her dog whistle instead.

Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder says his players never underestimate the effect of a home crowd.

"There is something about hearing a crowd full of fans and knowing that they're cheering for you. The 'home advantage' isn't an imagined thing; it is very real and it is the fans who create it."

Ditto, says Crusaders chief executive Hamish Riach.

"Our fans are not shy," he says.

"We get comments on anything and everything. Whether they're praising us or chipping us we know how privileged we are to have the depth and support of our core fanbase. Even if they are chipping us, they'll usually finish with something like "ongoing best wishes".

Riach acknowledges today's players aren't as accessible as they were more than a decade ago. Back then, a few of the lads would slip into the supporters' club for a post-game beer. It's a loss the supporters' club laments.

"It's part of the ongoing evolution of professional rugby," says Riach. "The focus at the conclusion of the game is to have a meal and recover from the exertion. Their bodies need to get ready for the following game. It's a fundamental change in the game.

"We know it hasn't been easy with the temporary stadium and loss of a supporters' venue and being moved around."

Being visible is vital to pinning rugby as the sport of choice in New Zealand so the union makes great efforts to organise public appearances, signings and the chance for kids to kick around with their heroes.

Robin Leary, 56, doesn't shout his fandom from the treetops but he would have to be one of the most dedicated followers of footy in Canterbury.

He has been to the last 68 consecutive National Provincial Championship games. That is, he has not missed a game since 2008, even during the disruption of the earthquake.

Of the past five years, he has missed an average of only two Crusaders' games a year travelling through New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. This year he has missed the two South African games.

"My partner and I have no children and no pets," he says.

After taking a redundancy payout some years ago, he works a 30-hour flexible week at a packaging company. Sometimes he goes alone; often his partner, Susan Low, goes too.

"I'm usually itching for the draw to come out. I have to do a bit of homework looking at websites and getting in early to work out the cheapest flights. It is a lot of work but I usually have it done before the season gets underway."

Friends and family just understand: "Robin will be away".

"I'm still passionate about them winning. I'm low key but Susan is a wee bit louder than me. It's like going to a rock concert. You have to be there.

"As a crowd, I don't think Canterbury are as parochial as they used to be but the people that go are more informed.

"And the good thing about rugby is that, like politics or religion, everybody's got an opinion and you can discuss it. Everyone has a different perception of different players and how a game went."

To re-invigorate and keep a younger generation of fans supporting the game, the Take a Kid to Footy initiative has been successful. For $24, one child and one adult can pick up a seat. It's cheaper than the movies and populates stadium rows with face- painted children (and probably boosts hotdog sales).

But one must never think age is a barrier to fandom. With a combined age into the 1000s, a gang of oldies at Elmswood Retirement Village regularly gathers to watch the big games.

The daily timetable includes more sedate activities such as Scrabble, Housie and reminiscing sessions but whenever the Crusaders are playing, the rest home residents will be glued to the big white projector screen.

As a Highlanders' fan, Russell Campbell, 74, is always outnumbered.

"Oooh, traitor," says someone at his Housie table.

Campbell can't stand poor sportsmanship. He gets "brassed off" at any boo-ing or when fans try to distract an opponent going for a precision kick.

Janet Johnson and Helen Cummack, who prefer to give their ages as "active elderly" say they love the rugby and "get really one- sided" when the Crusaders play. The pair giggle and admit the wine and nibbles are a big part of the drawcard.

Nellie Reid says she is 82 but actually she will be 100 in December. Her forthcoming centenary means this Canterbury supporter through-and-through has seen a lot of provincial rugby.

"I don't watch too much TV apart from the news," she says. "Oooh, the Crusaders, they'll win all right. And I don't yell. I just watch."

Norman East, 83, is a bit of a ringleader when it comes the independent living side of Elmswood. Originally from northern England, he has learned to love rugby as a New Zealander and helps to decorate the community room as a dozen or so residents wander over with a bottle of something to share tucked under their arms.

"Somewhere like here, there's a need to be social. I don't know all the players and I might not know all the rules as well as some of the lasses and others here but I still know Ellis and Carter and Richie and it's great fun."

East is picking a 31 - 27 win for the Crusaders.

Without doubt, the most fanatical Crusaders' fan at the village is their resident hairdresser Lesley Mora.

Her elaborate hat, trimmed with black and red feathers and fluff is a centrepiece of her home game outfit and has been a work- in-progress for six years. The latest additions are a series of googly eyes to represent the "one-eyed Cantabrian". They adorn the brim like corks on an Aussie Akubra.

Mora found rugby in the 1980s. Now a season pass holder, she says rugby got her out of the house and socialising. She goes to all the home games and travels for the Bledisloe Cup.

"I've learned all the rules and I don't need a commentary."

Her favourite player is "Number 7" (Richie McCaw) and she is proud of having a signed copy of his first book saying "To Lesley, my cougar."

Taking children to watch the game live is a real pleasure for Mora.

"My nephew has come with me. He told Corey Flynn after a game that Corey was his name too. He'll never forget that. And he touched Sam Whitelock. The kids just adore them. It's so special seeing these guys in real life when they've only ever seen them on TV before."

Except for the additional pressure of a semi-final, tonight's game routine will be no exception for Mora.

She will be seated by 6pm. She will buy a burger and a bottle of water. Then she sets about watching the players warm up.

"Because how silly does a girl have to be not to get there and watch all those muscles?"

She will blow a hooter as loud as she can and after the game she will go to a restaurant up the road for garlic prawns and a glass of wine.

Hopefully she will be replaying a victory in her mind.

- The Press

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