The Crusaders are on the cusp of a remarkable piece of sporting history. Although I dislike the sporting cliché of "a journey", it really applies to the Crusaders as they have gone through this entire campaign, as many commentators have put it, playing away from home.
It does a disservice to the host unions to say that the Crusaders have had no home games because, like all teams, they had games that were designated home games. It would be more accurate to say they played all their games away from their home base in Christchurch as Nelson and Timaru are part of the Crusaders region and provided home-town support that was every bit as hostile and uncomfortable for the opposition as the average Christchurch punter could muster. Playing home games in Wellington against the Hurricanes was always a bit of risk and against the Chiefs in Napier was a potential banana skin. And the now celebrated festival of rugby at Twickenham where the Crusaders put on a stunning display that had the locals gasping. Adding to the excitement, the Sharks were not charitable enough for it to be a Crusaders benefit and ratcheted up the excitement to complete the celebration.
The Super 15 is truly a long competition. To put it in context, when it started, the Christ Church Cathedral still had a spire. Since then, the Crusaders have travelled more kilometres than any team in the history of Super rugby. And at the end of the round-robin competition they had third place in the bag and still had the highest point differential by quite a long way.
Along the way, there were times when it looked like the toll was too great. There were less than stellar performances against the Highlanders and the Cheetahs. Both those performances by the Highlanders and Cheetahs were excellent team performances where they took their chances and were able to put the Crusaders under pressure. There was even room for controversy with the loss to the Reds in Brisbane. Just when the Crusaders looked like they had the game won, a refereeing decision cost them the game. To be fair to Stu Dickinson, he did communicate "no hands" while the play was going on, but it did seem to be a strange decision. But perhaps the season was summed up by the first game back after the February earthquake.
The Warratahs had basically clobbered their opposition in the first two games and were sitting pretty with maximum points. They had also nilled the Rebels in the first game and beaten the eventual finalists the Reds. Against the Crusaders, they looked like they were playing well. They had two tries in the bag and the Crusaders didn't look in it. For the Crusaders, it looked like one bridge too far in what had been a hell two weeks. But the Crusaders came back and won comfortably in a game when it looked like the emotions may just overshadow the performance. It was also one of the games the Crusaders turned out in West Coast colours in tribute to the miners who died in the Pike River disaster.
In that game it took two magic moments from Robbie Fruean to turn the game. An intercept try from a telegraphed pass then two minutes later a try in the corner and suddenly the Warratahs were a beaten team. The following week, the Crusaders crushed the old foe, the Brumbies by a staggering 52-10 in a game where the highlight wasn't the tries but a try saving tackle by Robbie Fruean again. With the Crusaders way in front, he chased down Adam Ashley-Cooper and hauled him down five metres from the line and gained a turnover. If that wasn't season inspiring stuff, then I don't know what is.
As the season carried on, there was a mixture of clinical, grinding wins (Force, Stormers, Chiefs), sprinkled with the celebrations of rugby that the Crusaders and Sharks took to Twickenham. The forward pack took on the role of the toughest, hardest pack in the competition and the backs combined to fluidly finish moves. Once injuries started to mount, there were fears the wheels would fall off, but they still ground out wins. And as the season started to wind up to the climax, and injured players came back into the mix, the Crusaders started to find top gear again.
When Sean Maitland returned to the fray, the backs looked much sharper. He set up a try for Sonny Bill when nothing was on simply by good footwork. And when he ran away with an intercept in the semi final against the Stormers, the ball could not have been better presented to him if the player in question had run up to him with the ball on a silver tray and asked, "Will there be anything else Mr Maitland?" A fully fit Sean Maitland is a real threat to any team and I have a feeling, he is going to get better - much better.
So the journey is nearly at an end. After winning the first away semi-final in 12 years, the Crusaders enter this game as favourites. In their way, the Reds, who disposed of the Blues with a flourish that any one of the Three Musketeers would have been proud of. There is obvious danger men in Quade Cooper and Will Genia but to ignore the rest of the team and target only those two would be a huge mistake. The Crusaders are smarter than that and whatever happens on Saturday night it will have been a truly remarkable season. A chapter in sporting history awaits.