Christchurch – As fate would have it, one of the most memorable matches between the Sharks and Crusaders took place at England’s home of rugby, Twickenham, some three years ago.
The historic fixture was the first Super Rugby match to be played outside the Sanzar region, with the match having to be re-scheduled after the devastating February, 2011, earthquake in Christchurch.
In the end, the Crusaders emerged victorious in a high-scoring match that served as a superb advert for Super Rugby, and which has British rugby journalists talking about the encounter to this day.
After missing out on playing the Crusaders in 2012, the Sharks eked out a victory over the seven-time champions at Kings Park last year, but this week has seen the Durban side return to Christchurch for the first time since 2010.
On that occasion, the Crusaders clinched a 35-6 victory at the former Jade Stadium, but today the ground is overgrown with weeds and in a state of disrepair, which serves as a poignant reminder of the natural disaster that ripped through Christchurch on that fateful day in 2011.
The newly-built AMI Stadium will now serve as the venue for tomorrow’s highly-anticipated clash, which will see the two title contenders go head-to-head in what is set to be the pick of the Super Rugby fixtures this weekend.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that both sides are at very different points in their campaign, with the Sharks having lost some momentum in recent weeks after a strong start to the competition, while the slow-starting Crusaders are now on a five-match winning streak.
Incredibly, the Crusaders have not lost to a South African team in New Zealand since 2001, while the Sharks have never won in Christchurch (although they drew 26-26 in 1997).
However, Sharks director of rugby Jake White insisted that such records were there to be broken.
“This is why you want to coach and play rugby, because you want to be judged in these sorts of games and situations. We haven’t won here in nearly 20 years of Super Rugby, but the nice thing is that it’s eventually going to change, and that’s why people follow sport because they want to be sitting in the stadium the day it happens.
“Who knows, maybe this weekend is one of those occasions where people buy tickets and tell their grandchildren they were there.”
Any way you look at it, though, it would take something extremely special for the Sharks to clinch their first-ever win in Canterbury against an in-form Crusaders side who are now just five log points behind the table-topping Durbanites.
“We have an opportunity this weekend against a top team who have won five in a row, and who have an incredible record at home against South African opposition, but we’re really just excited for this one,” White commented.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said it was also a fixture his side have been really looking forward to.
“We’ve always enjoyed playing the Sharks, which is built out of mutual respect.
“There have been some huge games in the past and there is good history between the two teams.
“There’s also always been an appreciation for the type of rugby played between the two teams, which presents an exciting challenge.”
This week there have been hints from the Sharks camp that they may look to add some subtle changes to their attack, and the Crusaders coach said they knew they’d have to be prepared for whatever came their way.
“We expect the Sharks to play within their structures, they have a good kicking game, but we also have to be aware that they’re prepared to run it when it’s on,” Blackadder said.
“I think they’re playing smart rugby, and that’s why they’re number one in the competition so far.
“I wouldn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking they’re going to just have a plan A or a plan B.”
Sharks: SP Marais; JP Pietersen, S’bura Sithole, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo; Frans Steyn, Cobus Reinach; Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel, Tera Mtembu; Stephan Lewies, Etienne Oosthuizen; Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis (captain), Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Dale Chadwick, Lourens Adriaanse, Ryan Kankowski, Keegan Daniel, Charl McLeod, Tim Swiel, Heimar Williams - The Star