‘It was the best times, it was the worst of times’ as Dickens once said. Such is the stark contrast between two cities and their respective rugby teams, tribalism, the Auckland Blues versus the Canterbury Crusaders.
For the Blues of late it has been the worst of times, during the fledgling stages of Super Rugby the Blues claimed back to back titles in 1996 and 1997. Under Graham Henrys tutelage and stacked with All Blacks such as Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brooke and Sean Fitzpatrick title number three seemed a mere formality during the 1998 campaign. However it was not to be as the then underdog Crusaders laid the first bricks and mortar of what would become a nine time championship dynasty.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Blues have only won one championship in 2003, with arguably the best resources and deepest player pool in New Zealand it is uncanny to see them languishing at the bottom of their conference log season after season. The sustained winning mentality is no longer there and they lack an identity of sorts compared to the Blues of the late nineties. It has not been a bad season some years, in between some good seasons whereby they are challenging for greater honors in the playoffs.
It’s not that the players and coaches haven’t given their all in previous seasons. It illustrates a deeper sense and need of introspection, the difference in a losing and winning mentality within a rugby team, just like winning becomes habit so does losing and it’s an incredibly taxing mental barrier to break.
Coaches have come and gone and all have been unable to turn the Blues ailing fortunes around, it’s now left to former Crusader Leon McDonald as new head coach to steady the ship and get the Blues back to their former dominant and entertaining selves. He will obviously need time for his playing philosophy to be ingrained into his players, he is not there for a quick fix but a sustained period to get them competing. However it would be a brave man to bet on the Blues getting one over their perennial southern rivals this Saturday.
And yet they have an opportunity this weekend to make statement in terms of what kind of Blues team they are going to be this season, will it be the same old Blues lacking cohesion and game management? or will this be the season they begin not taking a step back and make sure that any team wanting to beat them are going to have to bleed, work and sweat for every inch of that victory?
For the Crusaders it has been the best of times, they have been the bedrock on which the All Blacks have truly flourished in the professional era, Scott Robertson former member of the 1998 championship side is the break dancing head coach and eying up his third title in as many seasons.
Blessed with an abundance of All Black riches and the best forward pack in Super Rugby, title number three by all accounts is a shoe in, the Crusaders have created and sustained an excellence the Blues would have done well to learn from. It is not to say the Crusaders are undefeatable, under then coach Todd Blackadder in eight seasons they failed to land a single title with players such as McCaw, Carter and Reid, also failing to make the playoffs in 2015 outright.
Dickens theme in A Tale of Two Cities is ultimately about duality and resurrection, whilst the Blues will perhaps not win a championship this season, they could on Saturday give the Crusaders a stark reminder of their title aspirations to come.
Written by Brandon Going