Crusaders, Reds seek fairytale endings in Super final

The Canterbury Crusaders’ stunning semifinal upset of the Stormers in Cape Town continued their remarkable odyssey in a tragedy-tinged Super season, but has set them on a collision course with a Queensland Reds team desperate to write their own fairytale ending.

After Christchurch’s devastating earthquake in February ruined their home base, the Crusaders have been a team of wanderers, playing home matches in remote provincial towns and roaming as far as London to keep their season alive.

Little wonder the seven-times champions were able to shrug off the 11 000 km trip to the South Africa conference champions with Saturday’s emotional 29-10 victory that marked the first semifinal won on the road in over a decade.

The Reds’ 30-13 dismantling of the Auckland Blues on Saturday will mean another long-haul flight back to the Antipodes to prepare for the final in Brisbane.

As 45 000 ecstatic fans who witnessed the Reds’ imperious win over the Blues would attest to, Lang Park has been a house of pain for visiting teams, with only the ACT Brumbies able to break their home dominance this year.

The Crusaders also suffered heartbreak at the Brisbane ground, going down 17-16 in a furious match decided by a last-minute penalty kick by the Reds’ marauding flyhalf Quade Cooper.

That clash, regarded by many as the most thrilling of the season, was witnessed by a record Super rugby crowd at the ground of 50 000, and organisers expect that to be smashed for Saturday’s final.

Carnage
For Crusaders captain Richie McCaw, the final is rich reward for a side that has remained unbowed in the face of adversity.

“You get a choice — you can use [travel] as an excuse or you can decide not to,” the All Blacks skipper said after the victory at Newlands.

“I’m really proud of the way the guys all year haven’t used travel as an excuse. We made a decision when all the carnage happened at home we wanted to stand up for the people at home and what the Crusaders meant.”

One blip from the victory in Cape Town was Andy Ellis coming off after taking a knock. Should the scrumhalf fail to recover for the final, Willi Heinz would be expected to fly over from Christchurch for the game.

The Reds, blighted by injuries in the second half of the season, had few such worries going into Saturday’s semifinal and were heartened by the performance of their big guns.

Flanker Beau Robinson, rampaging back Digby Ioane and outside centre Anthony Faingaa all turned in solid performances after coming back from injury, while fleet-footed winger Rod Davies scored a hat-trick of brilliant tries in just his second game back from a hamstring strain.

The performance of Reds flyhalf Quade Cooper, at his mesmeric best on Saturday, has also set up a mouthwatering match-up with Crusaders’ Dan Carter, whose kicking boots were on fire during the Stormers match.

Queensland’s main burden is the weight of history rather than personnel, the side having never played a Super final in the professional era.

While they will be wading into unknown territory, Ewen McKenzie’s side have little want of motivation as they seek to continue their stunning turnaround from being the competition’s whipping boys for the better part of a decade.

McKenzie’s two years at the helm has taken the side from the bottom of the southern hemisphere tournament to one win shy of the title, a renaissance that has not only brought the financially-troubled province out of its doldrums but restored badly-needed credibility to Australian rugby.

“From the effort we’ve seen this group put in after coming through the darker days … and see how we’ve come back to now host a grand final is a massive achievement,” said Reds captain James Horwill after the win at Lang Park.

“But the last hurdle is the hardest one.”

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