Phil Gifford: Crusaders symbolism can no longer be ignored


Living in Christchurch during the first eight years of the Crusaders I came to admire them not only for their organisational skills, but also for their decency.

Under people like Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans, and Todd Blackadder they were ruthless on the field, but generous spirited off it. For me, like most non-Muslims, the name, and the imagery of knights and swords that went with it, carried no historical emotional baggage at all when they began in 1996.

Now, in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy in Christchurch last week, the symbolism can no longer be ignored, and I applaud entirely the steps the Crusaders are taking.

Crusaders’ CEO Colin Mansbridge, correctly believes that as the Muslim community, and the city itself, mourn the dead, it is too soon for a decision over a name change. The issue, he promises, will be fully discussed at a later date, with Muslim leaders included in the meetings.

The Crusaders have never paid lip service to their culture of inclusiveness. They’ve embraced players from different countries and cultures, and enhanced their careers. If a request is made from the Muslim community for them to change their name, I’d be surprised if they didn’t.

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Politics and sport are forever intertwined, for good and bad. New Zealand rugby disgraced itself for years by banning Maori from All Black teams touring South Africa.

On the other hand, Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island in South Africa said when news reached him in his cell that the Waikato game on the 1981 Springbok tour had been called off it was “like the sun came out.”

The narrow decision at the Auckland council this week to deliver a grant of $9.8 million, as part of a loan package of $63 million to the Eden Park Trust Board, is a sign, despite Mayor Phil Goff opposing the grant, that the political mood is swinging in favour of keeping the park operating.

Having been lucky enough to go to sports stadiums in many parts of the world, I’ve never quite understood the invective that often emerges when Eden Park enters the conversation.

In particular, I can’t see where the idea springs from that all other city stadiums are wildly different from, and much better than, Eden Park, so we might as well shut it down.

Apparently when you go to see rugby in other parts of the world you step from a train onto the stadium concourse, where you can buy perfectly chilled beer and very reasonably priced hot chips.

In fact, for every Millennium stadium in the middle of Cardiff, there’s a Twickenham, plonked, just like Eden Park, in the middle of suburbia. For every Melbourne Cricket Ground, walking distance from the city centre, there’s a Stade de France, 12km away from the Champs-Elysees.

For years I’ve felt little sympathy with what seemed to be a powerful lobby group of local residents, who must have bought or inherited a house near Eden Park, and then moaned about the fact that the big place by Sandringham Rd was a sports ground.

My apologies to the majority of Eden Park neighbours. The reality, it now appears, is that most of them have no issue with living next door to the park.

In the sound and fury that accompanied the plan to hold a Waitangi Day charity concert at Eden Park, a poll was conducted by UMR, a research company led by David Talbot. Talbot conducts polling for Jacinda Ardern, so presumably is not in thrall to any right wing, pro sport, old boys’ network backing Eden Park.

The results of that UMR poll were dismissed by those opposed to the concert, including the formidable Helen Clark. Little wonder concert nay sayers were keen to rubbish the research. It found that of the 350 people polled who lived in suburbs surrounding the park 87% were happy for the concert to go ahead.

The fine points of council assistance to Eden Park could be argued forever, but the heart of the matter is that the park is the biggest ground in Auckland, and will be for the foreseeable future.

For the 2011 Rugby World Cup there were plans for a stadium over the water. More recently, plans for one in the water. The latest scheme appears to have ground to a halt.

Keeping Eden Park functioning, rather than tearing it down and starting again somewhere else, starts to feel like a sensible option.

Politicians have a huge regard for their own skins. Sport can be a handy vote catcher. Donald Trump ships in Big Macs at the White House for college teams. The ’81 Springbok tour was a huge boost for then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon.

What fascinates now is that the Auckland council appears to be shifting to the stance that support for Eden Park is no longer a liability at the ballot box.

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Sometimes it takes someone a step removed to state the obvious.

Former Springbok Brendan Venter says he doubts Warren Gatland is the “right fit” for the All Blacks coaching job.

Gatland is a terrific coach, as his success with the Lions in 2017, and Wales this year shows. But as Venter points out, Gatland, limited by the lack of great attacking players to choose from in Wales, has developed a style with them that is basically the antithesis of how the All Blacks play.

Wales out-Englanded the English, bulldozing past them to win the Grand Slam, and Wales may well be the most dangerous European team at the World Cup. But how quickly could a man who has been coaching Wales in the north for 12 years, adjust to the infinitely more daring, high wire act that is now the way we all expect the All Blacks to play?

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Publish date : 2019-03-21 23:08:30

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