At the start of this decade the Hurricanes could hardly be put in the same breath as the Crusaders. One franchise had lost two Super Rugby finals, while the other had won seven of them as Super Rugby’s most successful franchise.
Going into the 2013 season, the Hurricanes had only won five of their first 23 matches against the red and black machine. However, the 2012 season began the turning of the tide as the Hurricanes future core of TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett and Dane Coles began filtering into the side.
After being hammered at home in March that year by 42-12, the young side pulled off an unlikely coup in Christchurch, beating the Crusaders at home 23-22 in late June. The sides traded two penalty goals each in the second half and the Hurricanes held on for a one-point win.
At the time, it was still an obscure upset, but it would mark the beginning of the current Hurricanes-Crusaders rivalry that has turned into the marquee match-up in the New Zealand conference.
One local homegrown prospect would play a defining role in level the playing field as the Hurricanes started to string multiple victories together, enough to truly be considered a ‘rival’.
Alapati Leiua, a Samoan-born outside back, moved to Wellington at 16-years-old and attended Porirua College in the northern suburbs. Not renown for being a rugby powerhouse, they still had raw talent, some of which filtered through to the Northern United rugby club like Leiua.
The honour roll of players coming out of Norths in the 2000s was impressive. The late Jerry Collins, Tamati Ellison, TJ Perenara are all All Blacks that came through the club. Over an eight-year span, they won 75% of their games, including four local Jubilee Cup titles. It was a powerhouse club that often propelled players on to bigger things, which probably could have been more had professionalism been what it is today.
Leiua was one of them, an outside centre by trade, his power was undeniable and it decimated the club scene. According to Club Rugby, he clocked 53 tries in 49 games for Norths since arriving on the scene in 2008. Without a schoolboy rep resume, Leiua’s irresistible form eventually lead to a provincial call-up and a Super Rugby chance with his hometown franchise.
Heading into the first Crusaders derby at home in March 2013, the young Hurricanes side had lost two in a row and faced a third consecutive defeat, which would almost certainly end their hopes of playoff rugby. When Dan Carter scored and converted his try to put his side up 28-19 late in the second half it seemed it would end that way.
The Hurricanes set themselves up for a ‘slingshot’ finish, opting to take a long-range penalty goal with ten to go to get within striking distance at 28-22.
With the Crusaders nursing a six-point lead with eight minutes to go, up stepped Leiua with a heads-up play to stun the visitors. It was unlike the usual composed Crusaders, who so often play situational rugby when it’s required.
From a lineout restart on halfway, they attacked wide giving early ball to the second-five Adam Whitelock to throw a long ball to fullback Israel Dagg on a bounce out line.
“I saw the Crusaders do the same move in the first half and decided to go for it.” Leuia told Club Rugby at the time, “I am glad it worked out.”
The Hurricanes winger undercut Dagg and snatched the ill-fated floating pass, streaking away to score under the posts in a dramatic turn of events. The pivotal strike against the run of play shocked even the most ardent Hurricanes fans, and the home crowd erupted with joy as the Hurricanes squeaked a 29-28 win.
It was only the second time in history the Hurricanes had won back-to-back games over the Crusaders, matching the feat of the side who did it in 2000-01. The Crusaders returned serve in the second derby later that season but for the second year in a row, the Hurricanes had leveled the annual series 1-1.
2014 would prove that lightning can indeed strike twice as Leuia’s magic against the Crusaders wasn’t finished. The Hurricanes came down to Christchurch for the first derby to spoil the party on the night of Kieran Read’s 100th game for the Crusaders.
Again both sides were struggling in the context of the wider competition, with the Hurricanes under pressure with only one win from their first five games and the Crusaders faring little better with two, but the importance of conference clashes bought the best out of them.
Jumping to an early 17-3 lead, the Hurricanes landed the early blows in what was a spiteful encounter with frequent skirmishes breaking out.
As the lead changed four times, the Hurricanes looked like the tank had been emptied with few ideas left down by two with seven minutes to go. At almost the exact same timestamp as Leiua’s infamous intercept the year before, the winger pulled out something from nothing.
Inside their own half, the Hurricanes spun the ball to the edge in the hope of a miracle. Leiua went around the corner perilously close to the touchline, shaking off Johnny McNicholl and skipping out of the diving grasp of Sam Whitelock. Stepping inside Dagg, he fended off the last-ditch attempts of both Andy Ellis and Colin Slade to score a stunning try that beat five defenders over 60-metres.
The emotion was visible on full time as the Hurricanes clung to a 29-26 win and celebrated wildly. They followed it up with a 16-9 victory in Wellington to sweep the series 2-0 for the first time.
Since that 2012 season, the Hurricanes hold an 8-6 advantage in the overall head-to-head record, and that early-season 42-12 hammering is the last time the Crusaders have beat them at home.
The 25-year-old Hurricanes’ folk hero had already secured his playing future after 2014, securing a deal with Wasps while on the 2013 end-of-year tour with Samoa. After his departure, the Hurricanes made back-to-back Super Rugby finals and captured their maiden title in 2016, before the Crusaders new dynasty won back-to-back titles as both franchises rose to greater heights.
Leuia’s heroics at the dawn of the Hurricanes most successful era are woven into the history of this rivalry, and certainly helped to change the fortunes of a side that historically struggled against the Crusaders. By single-handedly stealing two victories, it began to break down the psychological barrier, and the Hurricanes’ next generation have largely held the wood over the Crusaders since.
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