Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Police escorts and selfies greet Crusaders in rugby-mad Fiji

Nemani Nadolo is one of three Fijians in the Crusaders' squad. Photo / Getty
Nemani Nadolo is one of three Fijians in the Crusaders' squad. Photo / Getty

A police escort can clear traffic but, as the Crusaders have discovered on their way to and from training in Suva ahead of their historic match against the Chiefs tomorrow night, it also attracts attention, especially when a large red-and-black flag has been attached to the team bus.

The last few days have been novel for the Crusaders in many ways. They broke new ground when taking their Super Rugby match against the Sharks to Twickenham following the Canterbury earthquakes in 2011 but, while that occasion brought a crowd of 35,000 on a warm Sunday afternoon in April, it lit up a small corner of southwest London only briefly.

This match, taken to Fiji's capital at the behest of the Chiefs and with help from the Fijian government, who have reportedly contributed $1.6 million, plus sponsors and the New Zealand Rugby Professional Players' Association, is making a different sort of impact.

A rugby-mad nation is responding as hoped and, with several players with Fijian heritage involved, including Nemani Nadolo, Jone Macilai and Ben Volavola at the Crusaders and Seta Tamanivalu at the Chiefs, the local population have not been shy about making their feelings known.

"We've got a police escort to training, but there is a Crusaders flag attached to one of the bus's side mirrors, so everyone knows who is on board," assistant coach Dave Hewett said. "Everyone was waving and wishing us well. They couldn't be nicer.

"We went for a run this morning, Toddy [Blackadder] and I, and he must have been stopped about 10 times for a photo. He gets recognised everywhere. I was the cameraman for most of them.

"Even the ones who didn't stop us were waving from their cars and yelling out, 'bula', so it's been a tremendous reception from when we stepped off the plane."

Assistant coach Tabai Matson, who played two tests for Fiji in 1999 and was a coach of the New Zealand Maori team who played at Suva's ANZ Stadium last year, has been invaluable with his advice on the region, Hewett said, but there is no getting away from what both teams are really here for.

A victory for the Crusaders will boost them hugely in their goal of finishing with home advantage in the playoffs - likewise the Chiefs - although Blackadder's men could retain their place at the top with a close defeat. They are three competition points ahead of the Chiefs and with a superior points differential.

The good news for them is that their All Black-laden pack has returned from the Wales tests in excellent physical and mental shape, although Hewett suspects the same could be said of the Chiefs.

"The guys have come back differently compared to previous seasons," Hewett said. "Yes, they've had a massive workload with three tests and their extra week of training at the start, but I know from what they're saying and their actions - leading by example - they are all involved and really up and contributing. The potential of coming over here for a significant event which has never been done before adds to that as well, but I'm picking the Chiefs will have the same impact from their guys returning.

"The Chiefs have always been a difficult game for us over the last few years. Playing away from New Zealand adds a little spice to the occasion, but playing the Chiefs in general is always a doozy when it comes to a performance. They have been pretty entertaining games for the most part but we know that, unless we play well and to our potential, it will be a tough day at the office."

- NZ Herald

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