The two best teams in Super Rugby will contest the competition’s climactic match this weekend. It will be a repeat of last year’s final, with the Crusaders and Lions again taking centre stage for the ultimate decider. The former crushed the Hurricanes on the weekend, the latter murdered the Waratahs. There is no doubt both deserve to be there, no matter what you may think about Super Rugby’s complex format.
They are the exemplars of Super Rugby’s marketing claim. They play high tempo rugby, they score buckets of tries, they play the game on the hop, and show a ruthless streak when capitalising on mistakes. They can come from behind, or they can strangle the life out of opposition teams. They have playmakers, and tough men, and mercurial talents in key positions. They play with purpose and they play with style – style that is often upstaged by their penchant for set piece dominance.
The Crusaders have a pack of international stars, all of whom have been forged in the fire of that franchise. The Lions have a front five of brutal elegance and a loose forward trio led by Kwagga Smith, a man who knows nothing about self-preservation and everything about the ghosts of finals past. They have Malcolm Marx, too. Marx is surely in a list of the most impressive tight forwards on the planet right now.
This final has endless storylines: the Lions will come to Christchurch attempting to do what the Crusaders did last year – cross the Indian Ocean and win the title. The Crusaders are the only team to have achieved that feat. The Lions are now in their third consecutive final. Will it be third time lucky for them? The Crusaders are aiming to win consecutive titles for the first time since 2006, when Jade Stadium was a cloud and no one saw the game. Will Kwagga Smith ever be able to bury the demons?
There is so much to savour about this final that it seems a pity to contemplate the one thing it won’t have. You see, the thing this final deserves is a final’s atmosphere, and that is the one thing Super Rugby just can’t get right.
The reality of this competition is games don’t have away fans. Away fans are the yin to the yang, the sauce on the side, the spicy marinade on the leg of lamb. They are the cheers in all the wrong places, the boos at inopportune moments, the devil on the referee’s shoulder. They are the noise that fills the silence and the nature that abhors a vacuum. They are as integral to a game of any significance as an overpriced beer and a box of soggy fries.
There have been criticisms of the crowds in the first two weeks of the Super Rugby playoffs, but those criticisms are borne of sadness not antipathy. Those of us who travel the country and know the teams behind the teams understand how hard they work to market their home matches to the faithful. But faith only gets you so far. Eventually you need to witness a sign to restore your belief. That sign is the trolling banner, the opposition scarf, the fist-pump from the lady in row 12 when your team concedes a penalty.
Tribalism, that half-arsed concept that passes for effective marketing for most sporting teams, only works when your tribe is actually threatened by something other than the slow onslaught of apathy. Away fans are the clear and present danger, the call to arms, the invading horde that must be repelled. Hell, even in the Flavian Amphitheatre the fans still cheered for the Christians before they were torn to shreds by the beasts. They were the original away fans. They are the architects of atmosphere, as New Zealand fans discover once every 12 years when the other Lions come to town with 30,000 fans in tow.
This Super Rugby final will not have this. Neither did last year’s final, or the year before that. A contest played across five time zones, spanning the southern hemisphere will likely never have this, and that is a crying shame. The English Premiership loves away fans, as does the six nations, the Pro 14 and the Champions Cup. Proximity allows for atmosphere. In New Zealand, even a local derby is hardly local, as witnessed by the lack of Hurricanes’ supporters in the stands at AMI Stadium on the weekend. And let’s not even contemplate how many Waratahs fans just decided on a whim to fly to Johannesburg for the weekend.
Perhaps it’s just reality but if so, it’s a sad one. I salute every fan who turns out to watch a game – we should focus more on the ones that make the effort rather than the ones who don’t – and I sure as hell hope every seat is taken for this weekend’s final at AMI Stadium. These teams deserve a packed house, this game deserves a packed house. It may not be ideal that they’ll all be cheering for the same team, but I’ll take a one-eyed full house over a half-filled stadium any day of the week.
For a final that has everything it needs, I hope it gets the crowd it deserves.
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