Crusaders get their first taste of final's action

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The Historian     20 May 2012     Getty Images

It was a great Super 12 for New Zealand franchises, with the Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders all making the top four.

Ironically this form didn’t carry onto the test stage, with the All Blacks struggling in the 1998 season.

That however, is another story…

The Crusaders opened their account in Super Rugby with the wooden spoon, but improved dramatically in the 1997 Super 12 with a sixth placed finish.

The backend of that campaign hinted at something special from the Crusaders, holding South African heavyweights the Sharks to a 26-26 draw, before winning three of their last four matches, including a remarkable 48-3 win over the Reds in Christchurch.

With Wayne Smith entering his second season as coach, there were high hopes for the Crusaders as 1998 began, but any expectation came crashing back down to earth when the red and blacks sunk to three losses in their first four matches.

The final of these in week five was a 31-24 reverse to the defending champion Blues, and with barely a month played, it looked as if the old guard would steam on to win their third straight title.

Especially considering the defending champions ended the 1998 regular season as the highest ranked side.

However what the Crusaders achieved throughout their campaign astounded many, with perhaps even many of the players themselves in awe of their own achievements.

The Crusaders won their final seven matches of the round-robin, with all but one of those victories earning the side a four-try bonus point – a remarkable feat when considering that in two full seasons previously they had only scored four or more tries on three occasions.

The final match of the regular campaign saw the Crusaders travel to Durban to play the highly credentialed Sharks.

The 1996 runners-up and 1997 beaten semi-finalists weren’t just hosting a red hot Crusaders outfit, but the winner would confirm home rights for the knockout stages of the 1998 Super 12.

While the Crusaders may have drawn with the South African giants in 1997, their solitary visit to Durban the year before had resulted in a mammoth 58-26 win to the hosts, so there was trepidation when taking on the Natal side.

The Crusaders won 32-20 for the first time in the coastal city, and booked themselves a return match against the same outfit in Christchurch.

What ensued on Sunday, 24 May, 1998, was a titanic clash which was a worthy test of the Crusaders credentials.

At first it seemed as if they would have an armchair ride into the final, leading 20-0 in the first half, before the Sharks mounted an impressive comeback.

The crowd at the old Lancaster Park looked on stunned as a Springbok laden pack tightened the screws, with Ollie le Roux scoring a double, while Mark Andrews was a colossus who thrived with ball in hand.

In less than an hour the Sharks engineered a 32-6 run to hold a six point lead with 15 minutes to play, but the steady boot of Andrew Mehrtens guided them home, kicking four penalties and two conversions – while two tries to hero Norm Berryman were significant in guiding the Crusaders to their first grand final.

Two current New Zealand Super Rugby coaches in Mark Hammett and Todd Blackadder - as well as current Crusaders assistant Daryl Gibson - featured for the Crusaders that day in their penultimate match before claiming their first Super Rugby trophy.