Craig Norenbergs: One cold night in Canberra, when Brumbies, Crusaders ruled Super Rugby

OPINION: I was the first journalist in the media room at Canberra's main stadium after the 2000 Super 12 rugby final.

Front row, best seats in the house.

A few other journos straggled in and sat behind me. I had the front row of plastic chairs to myself.

Beside me, on a table, sat a nice tray of sausage rolls and the fridge was full of soft drinks. A couple of scattered match programmes lay on the floor.

There are many times in my media career where I've felt honoured to be seated up front after an event. Olympic gold medallists, World Cup winners, big retirements or the signing of superstars are fun and historic.

But press conferences of losing teams in big finals are sombre affairs. No-one is happy, even if the team played well.

There's no talk of "next week", because there isn't. It's over... forever... they lost.

The "they" who lost on that chilly night 19 years ago were the ACT Brumbies, the team I followed, from the region where I grew up. They'd lost to the Crusaders by one point.

Both teams scored a try each. Loose forwards George Smith and Ron Cribb got their names on the scoresheet, but the difference was the boot of Andrew Mehrtens.

Brumbies reflect on their 2000 Super Rugby final defeat
Brumbies reflect on their 2000 Super Rugby final defeat. Photo credit: Getty

Stirling Mortlock kicked four penalties and a conversion for the home side, but bloody "Mehrts", slotted five penalties, proving the difference in a 20-19 scoreline.

Everything in the lead-up pointed to a Brumbies win. They'd finished top of the standings, back in the days before conferences, when every team played each other once during the season.

The Crusaders were just behind them in second, but the Brumbies had beaten the men in red and black only two weeks before in Christchurch. The Aussie capital franchise had never won the title before, but served the old 'you have to lose one before you win one' mantra by going down to the Blues in the 1997 decider.

Most importantly, they had a great team. Roff, Mortlock, Larkham and Gregan in the backline… Noriega, Harrison, Giffin, Paul and Fenukitau among the forwards.

Future Wallabies great - and tryscorer - George Smith was on the bench, for crying out loud.

And they could play. Oh, how they could play.

Coach Eddie Jones let them throw the ball around and big crowds flocked to Bruce Stadium. The whole city was proud.

The online weather report from that day tells me there was brief snow in the afternoon, while the temperature dipped below zero just before kick-off. The visiting Crusaders were going to freeze, like many footy teams before them.

I was rugged up, had great seats and the stadium was full. Referee Andrew Watson blew his whistle and 28,000 hardy souls settled in to see the Brumbies win.

As we now know, they lost. Mehrtens kicked everything from everywhere and the Crusaders, led by Todd Blackadder (with current coach Scott Robertson alongside him), strangled the Brumbies out of the game.

Larkham couldn't ghost his way through the defence off Gregan's flick passes, Mortlock didn't find any space, and Roff was stopped from chipping and chasing, as he’d done so effectively all season.

Scoreboard at Bruce Stadium, Canberra
Scoreboard at Bruce Stadium, Canberra. Photo credit: Photosport

Like many at the ground, I sat in disbelief, as the Crusaders hugged each other in celebration at fulltime. I slumped my way up to the media room at the top of the grandstand.

Captain Brett Robinson was first to be brought in. He looked at me sitting up front alone and shook his head, saying: "No good, mate, no good."

Robinson was a good fella, too. Fair, and talented, he played for the Wallabies in 16 tests, and now works as a doctor in Queensland and is director of an autism foundation.

Eddie Jones also sat down and the Brumbies media manager opened the floor to questions. There's always an awkward few seconds, before someone pipes up.

It fell to me to break the silence. I went for the classic, "Just not your night, eh, Brett?"

I can't remember the rest of the press conference, or what Brett and Eddie said, but I walked home that night, thinking it was the start of a great rivalry. And it was for a while.

The Brumbies won their first title the next year, beating the Sharks at the same ground. They got their revenge on the Crusaders in 2004, although Mehrtens had left by then, replaced by some bloke named Dan Carter.

How sad, then, that that rivalry is all-but dead. The Brumbies are no longer the team they were, while the Crusaders are stronger than ever.

I fear we may have seen the best of the boys from the Aussie capital. When the Wallabies were winning World Cups, players from the ACT led them there.

Worse, it seems the people of Canberra have lost their faith. Bruce Stadium, as it was known then, used to host big crowds for rugby.

Their form this year has been more miss than hit and the fans have responded by staying home.

I live in hope, but I think it's safe to say that I'll never sit in the front row of a final against the Crusaders in Canberra again. 

Craig Norenbergs is a Newshub sports reporter.

Join us at 5:15pm Saturday for live updates of the Crusaders vs Brumbies Super Rugby clash.