Saturday’s Super Rugby Pacific final between the Blues and Crusaders at Eden Park sold out inside five hours. Given the All Blacks, in five home Tests last year including successive outings against the Wallabies in Auckland, did not once fill a venue, that tells you everything about the anticipation surrounding this fixture.
The Brumbies had cause to be aggrieved in last week’s semifinal, having surged back from a 20-7 halftime deficit via two maul tries to within one non-Ben O’Keefe breakdown decision of a monumental upset against the Blues.
On consistency of results and performances throughout this season, though, no one can deny the Blues and Crusaders are Super Rugby’s premier teams and that this is, therefore, the best climax the competition could ask for.
A match that will feature 22 of Ian Foster’s 36-man All Blacks squad named on Monday for three Tests against Ireland next month promises to be an almighty battle royale.
Those 50-odd-thousand who flocked to get tickets earlier this week will get their money’s worth with the Beauden Barrett-Richie Mo’unga match up alone.
That’s before you consider the Barrett brothers, Beauden and Crusaders captain Scott, and the Goodhue bros, Blues lock Josh and Crusaders midfielder Jack, dividing family loyalties.
Or Luke Romano, who spent 12 years and played 136 games for the Crusaders before switching to the Blues this season, challenging his former comrades.
Or Sevu Reece mocking Rieko Ioane’s try-scoring celebrations.
Or Blues coach Leon MacDonald, the Crusaders fullback from 1997-2009 and assistant coach, going head-to-head with Scott Robertson – the same duo who, alongside forward guru Jason Ryan, applied for the vacant All Blacks management position post the 2019 World Cup.
“In my time at the Crusaders we loved to come here and play the Blues at Eden Park and I know the boys in the Blues here have a similar feeling around the Crusaders,” MacDonald said. “There will be a little bit of feeling, emotion, and two good teams are going to slog it out.”
Cast your mind back to last year and the Mo’unga-Barrett contest for the starting All Blacks first five-eighth role was too close to call.
Leaving his stint at fullback in the rear-view mirror, Barrett needed some time to find his feet after missing the 2021 Super Rugby season and returning from the Japanese Top League.
Only when Richie Mo’unga skipped the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship in Australia to remain at home for the birth of his second child did Barrett steal the march.
From there, Mo’unga could not reassert his authority in the face of pressing defensive line speed as the All Blacks forward pack struggled to lay a consistently dominant platform on their ill-fated northern tour.
This season Barrett has steadily built into exceptional form. He nailed a match-winning drop kick and his combination with the classy Stephen Perofeta has freed Barrett to ignite his lethal running game that came to the fore against the Brumbies.
Mo’unga has, comparatively, been relatively quiet by his standards.
Missing two weeks at the backend of the regular season with a fractured finger didn’t help. In his second match back Mo’unga helped spark the Crusaders to a gritty victory against the Chiefs last week, suggesting his best form isn’t too far away.
At this point, though, a clear gap is evident between New Zealand’s premier playmakers this season. Mo’unga has ground to make up. He has a history of rising for the occasions that matter – five Super Rugby titles attest to his consistent influence at this level – so what better time to send a message?
Intrigue abounds elsewhere about whether inspirational Blues captain Dalton Papalii will make a heroic comeback two weeks after undergoing keyhole surgery for an appendicitis. Likewise Caleb Clarke – sidelined for the past three weeks with a hamstring strain – and Sam Whitelock, who pulled out late last week with an injured thumb, are chances to return.
The Blues’ epic 27-23 round robin win in April, their first victory in Christchurch since 2004, offers some gauge as to why they start slim favourites. That drought-breaking result, home advantage, and their 15-match unbeaten run this season evoke confidence they are ready to claim their first fully-fledged title in 19 years.
Clinching the Trans-Tasman crown last year represented a giant leap forward – yet everyone knows this is the real prize.
While the Blues repeatedly proved their ability to remain composed and pull off clutch results throughout this season there is also a tendency to blow leads and invite opposition back through poor discipline or a lack of ruthlessness. That can’t be the case this week.
That’s because Crusaders know how to win finals. They don’t need second invitations. Twelve titles, five under Robertson, underlines their credentials.
The Crusaders haven’t been at their best this year, though. They were underwhelming, in fact, in back-to-back performances against the Reds, including their quarterfinal, and while they deserve immense credit for the resilience to make 222 tackles to negate the Chiefs last week, they cannot afford to give the potent Blues that much possession.
A repeat of the 1998 and 2003 Super Rugby finals is unlikely to see a Carlos Spencer-esque flipping of the bird moment but for engrossing drama and world-class talent, this final should deliver in spades.