COMMENT

I'm a Crusaders fan, so I'll dearly miss the horses.

They were there at the start. After the Canterbury Crusaders first played at Lancaster Park in 1996, and were thrashed 48-19 by the Auckland Blues, I was one of many local commentators who suggested the most exciting time for the Christchurch crowd was when the horsemen dressed as knights thundered around the ground before the kick-off.

I'll miss the Crusaders' name if it's changed. There are a horde of thrilling on-field memories, from the stunning upset of the 1998 title victory over the Blues, to the sheer joy the current side brings to their sport.

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Along with, I would imagine, most New Zealanders, I'm not a student of medieval history, and in '96 any vague ideas I had about the Crusades were based on the Monty Python movie. That sounds flippant now, but back then it was my innocent, albeit hugely ill informed, truth.

But as a country we're not innocent anymore.

The horror from the country's darkest day is at the centre of the sad change, felt nowhere more keenly than in Christchurch.

On the periphery is the name of a rugby team, a team that in Christchurch has unified and uplifted. From the days of Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans, and Todd Blackadder, the Crusaders have been a byword for decency and inclusiveness.

Having spent 50 years as a paid observer of rugby teams, no group has set better standards than the Crusaders, or had a more generous attitude to people outside the team.

But now we know that the Crusaders' name itself derives from groups as brutal and vicious as any other in medieval times, themselves a dark, cruel era in history. We can't undo that knowledge now. (It wasn't just Muslims who suffered during various Crusades. A Jewish friend emailed during the week to note that in the original Crusades, amongst other atrocities, Jews, being non-believers, were also slaughtered, some burned to death inside their synagogues.)

The Crusaders horses. Photo / Photosport
The Crusaders horses. Photo / Photosport

While I can understand the stance of those who feel something that happened 1000 years ago shouldn't have any influence on our thinking now, I'd respectively suggest that tens of millions of people all over the world still follow the teachings of a man who was crucified more than 2000 years ago. I don't hear people suggesting that Christians are idiots to follow beliefs so old.

A name change in a city like Christchurch, where so many have an emotional connection to the Crusaders, is already stirring powerful emotions. An online petition opposing any name change has quickly gathered almost 20,000 supporters.

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In 1998 when the name of Lancaster Park was changed to Jade Stadium, after a sponsorship deal with a local computer company, there were, in those largely pre-internet days, a barrage of outraged letters to local editors. The Crusaders stir more visceral feelings.

What's important now, as the discussion swirls, is that some things are not only made clear, but are drilled home.

There's been no government request for a name change, and, more importantly, Colin Mansbridge, the CEO of the Crusaders, says that the Muslim community has played no part in discussions, much less requested a change. For the "PC gone mad" group it's vital they know this is a determination not being driven from Muslim agitation, but by rugby officials who are, as Mansbridge has said, "committed to doing the right thing".

Sensitivity and rugby management have rarely been automatically associated, but Mansbridge and New Zealand Rugby's CEO Steve Tew were fair and thoughtful when they suggested the imagery of knights on horseback was no longer tenable.

In all honesty, if the whole branding of the team, from the pre-match entertainment, the faux fortress at the home ground, the crest on the jersey, the songs "Search For The Holy Grail" and "Conquest Of Paradise", and the sword sunk in the ground after title victories, are all dropped, as it appears they will be, it's hard to grasp how the name can't go the same way as the symbolism.