When you play at home, you find that some of the 50/50 decisions tend to fall your way. Luck, however plays just a tiny part in the Crusaders’ incredible run of remaining unbeaten in the 23 finals matches that they’ve hosted.
Their first ever knockout match was in 1998 when they narrowly escaped against the Sharks (then Natal) in Christchurch. The next weekend they travelled to Auckland and ruined the Blues’ chances of a title three-peat.
There is absolutely no question that the Crusaders are Super Rugby’s champion pace-setters. Only twice in their history have they finished outside the top seven teams and there have been just four seasons in which the Crusaders didn’t participate in the sudden death stages of the competition.
Until recently, the champion team also had a champion stadium to call home.
Jade Stadium hosted Super Rugby finals in 2002, 2005 and 2006. Rights changes saw the Cruaders’ home ground rebranded as AMI Stadium in 2007 and one more Super Rugby victory was earned on home soil under that alias.
AMI Stadium was never the biggest stadium in the world. The ground was capable of holding just under 40,000 people at its peak, after expansions to increase the capacity in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. That may seem unimpressive on a world-scale, but it was still the third largest in the country.
Of course, Christchurch did not end up hosting any matches at the World Cup after being rocked by a massive earthquake in February 2011.
AMI Stadium was damaged in the 7.1 magnitude quake and has now been all but demolished. Plans for a new landmark stadium in Christchurch are still being debated, but we certainly won’t see a new stadium in the city any time in the near future.
The 2011 season saw the Crusaders travel far and wide for their matches. Home fixtures were played in Nelson, Timaru, Napier (technically part of the Hurricanes catchment area) and a game against the Sharks was even taken to Twickenham in the UK. The Crusaders still somehow managed to make the final that year but fell to the Reds in Brisbane – a city also afflicted by bad natural disasters in 2011.
Rugby still needed a permanent home in Canterbury after the quake, so the Crusaders relocated to Rugby League Park (now named Orangetheory Stadium) for 2012 and beyond.
This weekend’s final will be hosted at that very stadium for the second time in as many years – and the Crusaders will likely head into the next few seasons as favourites to host the ultimate game of the year as well, given their ongoing class.
Therein lies the problem.
Christchurch’s premier venue, home of Super Rugby’s most successful team, boasts a capacity of just 18,000 people.
Orangetheory Stadium is the smallest main Super Rugby ground in New Zealand. Waikato Stadium, home of the Chiefs, is the next smallest at that arena still boasts a 7,000 person advantage.
Outside of New Zealand, all four South African home stadiums can accommodate for over 50,000 fans whilst the Australian stadiums can all host upwards of 25,000 people. The Sunwolves’ main ground in Japan has a capacity of 27,000. The Jaguares, who are travelling to Christchurch for the Super Rugby final, enjoyed playing host to 31,000 fans for their semi-final showdown with the Brumbies.
Purely when taking into consideration how many fans can get out to the matches, the Crusaders have the worst stadium in all of Super Rugby.
The Crusaders have earned the right to play the final match of the season in front of their fans, there’s no doubt about that, but hosting the biggest match of the year in a stadium that can only accommodate for 18,000 seems like a slap in the face for the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition. The Jaguares will certainly feel a bit bemused when they run out on Saturday night, given the crowd they just received at their previous game.
The grounds for the final of the Champions Cup, Europe’s top club competition, is now decided before the tournament commences. This season’s showcase event was held in Newcastle and has been spread across five different countries over the last five years. The last time fewer than 50,000 attended a Champion’s Cup final was way back in 2003.
Super Rugby in its current format can’t exactly take the same approach. Fans are willing to travel from all over Europe to see the Champion’s Cup final because they’re only ever a few hours flight away from the venue. Super Rugby, on the other hand, would seriously struggle to attract crowds to a final between two Australian teams if it were held in Johannesburg or Pretoria, for example.
It creates an interesting conundrum for Super Rugby’s organisers. Hosting flagship events at stadiums that can cater for fewer than 20,000 people is huge wasted commercial opportunity. There’s something charming about playing a professional game in front of a relatively small crowd – but for a sport that is looking to expand, there’s no room for sentimentality. Completely neutral venues is also not an option.
Perhaps moving forward we could see finals hosted within the same country of the top seeded team, but not necessarily at their home ground. Whilst this might be a sensible option, good luck convincing Crusaders fans that it’s better to host the final at the 60,000 seater in Auckland than in the heart of Crusaders territory.
It’s a challenging issue for Super Rugby – one more to add to the pile, given all the other problems that the competition faces. If the Crusaders still had their old stadium to play at then perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue at all – at Christchurch will not doubt have an excellent stadium in the future (a covered stadium, if the Gods are good). For now, however, it seems peculiar that the top competition in the Southern Hemisphere will conclude in front of one of the smallest stadiums used for professional rugby.
The Shortball – Scotty Stevenson and Ali Williams
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