Emotion, respect and class: How Crusaders navigated Christchurch return

The Crusaders return to Christchurch (2:00)

ESPN was on the ground as the Crusaders played their first game at home after the terror attacks in Christchurch. (2:00)

The Avon River winds its way through the heart of Christchurch.

In the centre of town, where old meets new, the Bridge of Remembrance connects one side of the Avon to the other. A stone arch etched with the World War I campaigns of Mesopotamia, France and Belgium on one side, and Palestine, Egypt and Gallipoli on the other, stands proudly as a reminder to the nation's involvement in the first great global conflict.

Standing on its eastern side, looking back to the west, and poking its head above the buildings in the distance, is one of many cranes that continue to rebuild the city after the 2011 earthquake. At that moment, while thinking of hundreds of thousands killed on the battlefields of Europe and North Africa, the fact that 185 lives were lost in that earthquake also hits home.

And that's before you've reached the city's Cathedral, which continues to sit in ruins, just a couple of hundred metres away. It's then you realise just how far Christchurch still has to go in its rebuild from that tragedy, let alone the one that occurred just last month.

Almost a month on, that act of terrorism remains extremely raw. But somehow amid the darkness, people are beginning the process of getting on with life. The memory of those 50 lives lost will never be far from mind, but still, life must go on.

That process continued last Saturday, when around 11,000 people made their way to Christchurch Stadium for the return of the region's beloved Super Rugby franchise, the Crusaders, and their Round 8 clash with the Brumbies.

They began to roll up an hour-and-a-half out from the 5:15 p.m. [NZT] kickoff, a steadily increasing tide of red and black foot traffic eager to see the return of their two-time defending champion. Greeted with an increase in security screening, there was an immediate reminder that their city had changed forever, not that one was needed.

Many were happy to stop and chat: to talk about their favourite Crusaders; what the team meant to the region; how they could help it recover from another senseless tragedy; and, of course, how many points they would pile on the Brumbies.

There were those too who spoke with passion, even a tiny tear in the corner of the eye, on the name debate that has engulfed not just the franchise supporters themselves, but seemingly every rugby fan up and down New Zealand.

That name debate stems from the link to the medieval Crusades, when Muslims were the direct target of violence and murder, the same situation that occurred in Christchurch last month.

For every person who says the Crusaders name has to go, there is one adamant it must stay.

As it stands, New Zealand Rugby and the Crusaders have engaged Research First to conduct a complete review of the situation with an eye toward making any changes ahead of the 2020 season. Some have, however, already occurred, such as the removal of prematch entertainment that saw sword-wielding knights circle the field on horseback.

Last Saturday, they were instead replaced with a minute's silence prematch and a version of Kiwi Dave Dobbyn's "Welcome Home." But soon, referee Jaco Peyper blew his whistle and the game got underway.

For much of the first half, the play resembled the gloomy conditions overhead. Patches of enterprising ball movement were ended by one average pass or a poor kick. But the visitors eventually got the break they were after when Owen Franks was sin-binned for a shoulder charge, with the Brumbies heading to the break up 7-0 following a try to skipper Christian Lealiifano.

At halftime, while local choir group the Vocal Collective sang two beautiful numbers, the sun began to shine. So too did the Crusaders' play thereafter.

From 7-0 down, the hosts flicked an attacking switch that produced 33 points in as many minutes. Doubles to wingers Will Jordan and Sevu Reece, and a swan-dive special from Jordan Taufua, were enough to wrap up the bonus-point 36-14 victory and, for a few hours anyway, put a smile on the faces of those who had attended.

With each try, hundreds of red and black flags fluttered proudly around the stadium; the posts also did their thing in lighting up a shade of neon red, the same way zing bails do in T20 cricket. For that second 40 minutes, it was hard to think how the Crusaders wouldn't add another year to the title list that is etched on a light tower in the stadium's southeastern corner.

Jordan and coach Scott Robertson later spoke of the pride with which the Crusaders players took in at last being back at home in front of their people. Crusader people. "Cantab" people.

When those "Cantab" people talk about their favourite Crusaders of all time, they don't just mention the likes of greats Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, but also guys like Taufua, who received the biggest roar of the day when he came on as a replacement, and Wyatt Crockett, who played more than 200 games for the franchise.

Though they loved the brilliance of Carter and now his heir apparent Richie Mo'unga, the breakdown master that was McCaw and his All Blacks successor Kieran Read, Crusaders supporters adore Taufua, Crockett and countless others because they play their heart out, or did so, week after week, with little to no fanfare. In a way, these are the guys who best represent what it means to be a Crusader.

The terrorist attack of last month has forced people to question that, too. What exactly is in a name? A name that can clearly be drawn to the crusades from medieval times and the slaying of people from the Islamic faith -- the same people who were targeted in Christchurch last month -- but one that also is so fondly followed by the people of the region and the fact it already had helped them back from the edge of despair once before.

Just where that decision lands will play out over the coming months, but as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says, it's one that must be left to the Crusaders organisation and the people from across the franchise's region. Only they can come to a decision about which is the best way to move forward.

But no matter which way that decision falls, this mighty sporting team showed, last Saturday, how they can remain a constant.

Just like the Avon River itself, the heart continues to flow through Christchurch. This all-conquering, entertaining and resolute rugby team is there to help provide its beat.