WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The Canterbury Crusaders have dealt with tragedy before, playing their 2011 season on the road after an earthquake flattened much of Christchurch, but Saturday’s home game against ACT Brumbies is likely to be the most emotion-charged in their history.
The Super Rugby fixture is the first at home for the nine-times champions since a mass-shooting at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15 left 50 people dead.
The earthquake that struck the city in February 2011 killed almost 200 people and kept the Crusaders away from home until week five of the following season, and assistant coach Brad Mooar said it was important for everyone to pull together to get through this latest tragedy.
“Its been another really tough period for our great city,” Mooar told reporters on Thursday.
“It’s uber important for us to play for our community and then to see the community give back to us as well - it just creates a really nice energy that we actually end up being in this together and we’re all one team.”
The team will hold a minute’s silence before kickoff on Saturday. More than 10,000 tickets have already been sold for the match and Mooar said the team were determined to bring a little joy back for the home fans at such a difficult time.
“(We can) go out and put on a performance and allow people to take a couple of hours out of the stuff that’s been happening and put a smile on faces and just have a time enjoying themselves watching us go about our work,” he said.
“It’s been really clear when we’ve won a trophy over the last couple of years its been a trophy for the people as much as ourselves.”
Amid debate over the appropriateness of the team’s name, given its links to the medieval religious wars between Christians and Muslims, the Crusaders have embarked on a review of their name and branding.
The pre-match tradition of horsemen dressed as knights riding around the perimeter of the ground has also been abandoned.
On the field, the Crusaders have included All Blacks captain Kieran Read in the starting lineup, something of a surprise given he only lasted to halftime in his comeback last week when he suffered bruising to his right leg in their 32-8 win over the Wellington Hurricanes.
“Don’t know if you’ve ever had a dead leg, that gets followed up by another dead leg in the same spot?” Mooar asked.
“It’s pretty painful, but he got through the week well.”
Tighthead prop Owen Franks will also make his 150th Super Rugby appearance after a neck injury kept him out of the last two games.
The defending champions lead the standings on 24 points and look on course for a 10th title.
Editing by Peter Rutherford