(Reuters) – An unstoppable force will meet an immovable object when the Auckland Blues take on the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super Rugby final at Eden Park on Saturday.
The championship decider pits the attacking prowess of a Blues team on a 15-match winning streak against a Crusaders side that made a record 222 tackles against the Waikato Chiefs in the semi-finals to protect their perfect record in home playoffs.
With Australia’s last team, the ACT Brumbies, falling to the Blues over the weekend, the all-New Zealand final will play out in front of a packed Auckland stadium with players from both sides also keen to stake claims for All Blacks spots.
“This is set for a great occasion and is an opportunity to seal an excellent season in front of a full-house at Eden Park,” said Blues coach Leon MacDonald.
“We need to buckle down, do the basics right, provide good front-foot ball for our backs, and focus on doing the basics right, with discipline both with and without the ball.”
The Blues finished top at the end of the regular season and are desperate to prove themselves against the 10-times champions Crusaders, who have consistently set the benchmark in the southern hemisphere competition.
The Blues won last year’s one-off Trans-Tasman tournament, their first championship in nearly 20 years, but the Crusaders picked up the domestic Aotearoa title, giving the South Islanders and their coach Scott Robertson a fifth crown in as many years.
The Blues’ long slump before their recent revival has kept the teams apart at the sharp end of seasons but an intense rivalry built in the days of the Super 12 competition has been reawakened.
The Blues won the last time the pair clashed for the title, a 21-17 win at home in 2003, that victory avenging their 1998 defeat away to the Crusaders.
MacDonald, who was Robertson’s team mate at the Crusaders during that period, has named captain Dalton Papalii on the bench after his recovery from appendicitis but the All Blacks flanker will need to prove himself with a late fitness test.
Robertson has brought back stalwart lock Sam Whitelock from a thumb injury in his only change to the Crusaders starting 15.
“We had a few sore bodies following the huge defensive effort last week, but everyone has come through the week really well,” said Robertson.
With the All Blacks’ series against Ireland kicking off next month, players on both sides have plenty to prove.
Beauden Barrett’s standout season for the Blues have many pundits picking him as Ian Foster’s starting flyhalf against Ireland, but Crusaders playmaker Richie Mo’unga may have something to say about that.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)