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Stephen Nell | Columnist Index
Stephen Nell is a rugby writer based in Cape Town and works primarily for the Die Burger newspaper. He has been contributing to ESPNscrum since 2005.
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An epic crusade
Stephen Nell
July 4, 2011
The Crusaders' Sonny Bill Williams thanks supporters at Newlands, Stormers v Crusaders, Super Rugby Semi-Final, Newlands, Cape Town, South Africa, July 2, 2011
The Crusaders' Sonny Bill Williams thanks supporters at Newlands following his side's Super Rugby semi-final victory over The Stormers © Getty Images
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When it's time for those end-of-season awards again, I hope the International Rugby Board (IRB) have a special one in mind for the Crusaders.

The purpose of this column was originally going to be to explore the phenomenon of local support for New Zealand teams in Cape Town. I will get to that a little later, but having dealt with and watched Todd Blackadder's Crusaders team in action again this past weekend, I can only wonder how it's possible to dislike them.

Here we have a team that has not once this season had the luxury of home advantage due to an earthquake, that through the (bad) luck of the draw in Super Rugby missed out on easy points against the Lions and Rebels, that have been without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw for large periods of the tournament, and yet are playing the Super Rugby final in Brisbane this week.

Should they prevail against the Reds - and I have a strong feeling they will - it will surely rank as one of the greatest achievements by a rugby team in the history of the game.

On Saturday night - in the wake of his side's emphatic 29-10 victory over the Stormers at Newlands - Blackadder spoke about the sad reality of the AMI Stadium in Christchurch being completely written off. Yes folks, that's Lancaster Park potentially gone. The irony of those words being spoken in a city where the majestic Cape Town Stadium is a 15-minute drive away from the grand old Newlands rugby ground could not escape me.

There are two great facilities in South Africa's Mother City - one the home of Western Province rugby and loved by traditionalists and the other a beautiful new facility offering all sorts of wonderful possibilities for the future. No such luxury for the Crusaders, who are just getting on with the job at hand while still unsure where they will play their games next year.

In the process they have once again demonstrated how powerful the human mind is. When discussing a team's chances, we often relate it to travel fatigue or home ground advantage. However, the Crusaders have made a mockery of such concepts and showed what can be done with the right attitude.

What I also appreciate about them is that they focus on what is within their control. When one talks to them about refereeing issues, they respond with a line that they will need to adapt to the referee. You just don't get a peep of a complaint out of them.

Even when the Stormers pulled off the rather unorthodox move of roping in Schalk Brits as loose forward cover last week, Blackadder's criticism was implied rather than blatant as he expressed the view that SANZAR would probably close the loophole of a team being able to bring in a marquee player at the business end of the competition.

 
"However, to say that Cape Town is "split" between support for the Stormers and visiting New Zealand teams is blatantly wrong."
 

On the rugby front there is very little not to like about the Crusaders. They have a fearsome scrum, a great fly-half in Dan Carter and an inside centre in Sonny Bill Williams whose off-loading skills may well redefine our concept of what constitutes a good No.12.

So why do some people in Cape Town support them? Well, for a variety of reasons and not mostly for the simplistic and untrue perception that black people in South Africa support the All Blacks because of politics.

In fact, one will find very few examples of ethnic black people in South Africa supporting overseas teams for political reasons. The vast majority of those who care about rugby are united behind South Africa and are also in favour of the retention of the Springbok emblem. There appears to be a small yet significant portion of so-called "coloured" folk that makes up a dedicated following for the New Zealand teams. The reasons for this vary - possibly from politics to the expansive and attractive brand of rugby play that the Kiwis play.

However, to say that Cape Town is "split" between support for the Stormers and visiting New Zealand teams is blatantly wrong.

There was some concern about incidents in the league meeting between the sides where Stormers players were jeered by local Crusaders supporters as they got off the team bus. However, the Western Province Rugby Union ran a great event at the weekend and the security measures were on a par with that of a Test match. This time supporters could not get that close and one never got the impression at the ground that the support for the Stormers was anything but overwhelming.

Exactly why it should be considered a problem that someone supports a visiting team - provided their behaviour does not detract from someone else's enjoyment of the event - is beyond me.

In terms of attendance figures at Newlands, the Stormers are the best supported side in the history of Super Rugby, so we're not exactly talking about a side struggling for support. Western Province, of course, is made up of numerous clubs from different communities - white, coloured, black, Christian, Muslim and so forth - so it's hardly a surprise that a diverse population should contain people with a different view of the world.

It's what makes South Africa, and in particular Cape Town, an interesting place. And, after this season, even rugby fans who don't like the Crusaders will certainly respect them.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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