Lancaster Park lies quiet, unkempt, padlocked. The place where the British & Irish Lions fell in the first Test of 2005, is closed due to damage inflicted by the catastrophic 2011 earthquake, in which 185 people lost their lives. The Hadlee Stand has already been pulled down and the demolition of the rest of the ground will start at the end of 2017.
But though that serves as a reminder of times past, this corner of New Zealand’s rugby scene is flourishing with the brilliant Crusaders inspiring the Christchurch locals and continuing to set standards for southern hemisphere rugby.
Instead of being disheartened the British & Irish Lions need to use these clashes against the Super Rugby sides to build ahead of the Tests, writes Craig Dowd.
Charlie Ngatai and Nehe Milner-Skudder have been included in a Maori All Blacks squad to face the British and Irish Lions.
The Lions will not play the All Blacks in Christchurch this series, so Saturday’s game against the unbeaten Crusaders is this part of New Zealand’s Test match. Christchurch pride will be writ large across the 18,000 who head to the AMI Stadium on a chilly evening, heading in hope to see the wonderful Crusaders face Warren Gatland’s Lions.
It has been a remarkable season for the Crusaders. Last weekend they were staring defeat in the face against the Highlanders, only for Mitch Hunt to pull off an astonishing 45-metre snap injury-time drop-goal to win the match. The rugby Gods are seemingly smiling on the Crusaders this term after a nine-year spell without a Super Rugby title.
Such a barren spell was unthinkable 10 years ago. From 1998 through to 2008 they collected seven of the 11 titles on offer. Leon MacDonald, who won 56 caps for the All Blacks, was the team’s anchor at fullback and he is now the Crusaders’ backs coach having joined prior to this season alongside head coach Scott Robertson. They have helped mastermind this incredible run of form, but he is unwilling to accept plaudits for their part in this success story.
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“There are similarities from when Scott and I played for the Crusaders a few years ago and others are different as the game has moved on,” MacDonald told ESPN. “A lot of the culture is here around the leaders and the way they have an input in the team. It’s not just the coaches, it’s the players as well. Getting that mix right, it’s important that you enjoy the rugby and the social side of the game.
“You need to have that belief and the work ethic to work hard for your mates — be the one to make the try-scoring tackle as all the little things add up and make a difference. That comes down to wanting to do it for your team and teammates.
“We’ve had a little bit of luck. Never take the wins for granted and we work hard regardless of the result each week and look forward to the next game. There’s no magic wand, it’s more around work ethic and work rate.”
MacDonald feels the squad are more than just colleagues, saying “they’re really mates”; it is a togetherness that has held both the Crusaders and All Blacks in good stead over the years.
He knows the Lions well. Back in 2005 he was part of the Maori team that toppled the Lions in the third match of that series, and then started the first Test in Christchurch when Graham Henry’s All Blacks secured a 21-3 victory.
Leon MacDonald takes the game to the Lions in 2005 at Christchurch’s Lancaster Park. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
The Maori match gave them a true gauge of whether amid all the huff and puff bluster of the Lions’ message over their unrivalled physicality, they could actually back it up. Carl Hayman tested that well enough for the Maori, and after matching fire with fire, there was a belief in this part of the world that superior ability in the backs would lead to a Test series victory.
“They lacked a bit of cohesion when they were put under pressure and we could exploit them then,” MacDonald remembers. “Even in the first Test which was a wet game, we managed to score some points and we were pretty keen to get them on a dry track and speed the game up a little more.
“Dan Carter obviously had a good game. We knew we had the edge on them and could match them physically and had the speed and handling to play at a pace they hadn’t played that often back home.”
That 2005 bunch won few friends in this part of the world with their over-professional attitude leading to boxes being ticked rather than players going the extra mile to embrace local culture.
“New Zealand’s always big on the whole team, not just the starting team and everyone’s as important as each other and that was a different mindset,” MacDonald said. “Everyone was fighting for spots so it’s pretty hard to become mates when you have the two teams. “There was a lot of pressure around the way they did that, and it probably wasn’t the right way to do it, and it’s different to how we do things in New Zealand. I didn’t really speak to them, it was about business.”
This Lions group are a little different, they are making a big effort to make a good impression here. They paid their tributes to those who lost their lives in the Christchurch earthquake on Thursday and have put a real emphasis on mixing in with the local community. It has been noticed by New Zealanders and they have definitely endeared themselves more than the touring team 12 years ago.
The Crusaders have experienced a remarkable 2017 season Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
But there will be few favours granted for the Lions on Saturday. The Crusaders will be desperate to keep their unbeaten run going, and in a place where tragedy has robbed them of a Test match, it will be a truly astonishing atmosphere as Christchurch welcomes the Lions for a match that will no doubt bring with it a time for reflection, nostalgia and pride.
“There’s been a lot going on in Christchurch with the earthquake and it’s brought the city closer as we haven’t had many events,” MacDonald said. “The stadium’s been out of order and we’re missing the concerts and Test matches so we’re looking forward to the Lions coming.
“It’s a one-off game for us. We’re preparing slightly differently and we’re trying to make it unique. You only normally get to play them once in a lifetime. It’s a great occasion to be a part of and there’s an opportunity to create your own piece of history.
“It’s a team full of internationals and for some guys who won’t play Test rugby, it’s the closest they’ll get. We’ve got the luxury of playing it with our good mates, at our home town and home crowd so we get the experience of an international match without the pressure the All Blacks have on their shoulders so it’s very exciting to be a part of. This is our Test so it’s a privilege to be able to play a part in that game.”
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