Super Rugby Pacific final: Blues v Crusaders
Where: Eden Park, Auckland
When: Saturday, 7.05pm
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
TAB odds: Blues $1.80 Crusaders $1.92
Live coverage: Sky Sport 1, live updates on stuff.
Defense wins championships. It’s an axiom used again and again in sport.
No surprises, then, the two stingiest teams – the Crusaders leaked 268 points and the Blues 284 during the regular season – will clash in the Super Rugby Pacific final at Eden Park on Saturday.
Whether it be with standing lengthy raids on the goal line, holding a ball carrier up over the line, or scrambling back and defusing a line break, both sides have displayed the type of desperation and resilience worthy of a championship winner.
Think the Crusaders making a Super Rugby record 222 tackles during their semifinal win against the Chiefs last week.
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As coach Scott Robertson said afterwards: “Defence wins championships…and that’s given us a chance for next week.”
Think the Blues rebuffing a 26-phase assault on their line to preserve a 22-18 win over the Force in April, or the desperation tackle Rieko Ioane and Dalton Papalii made on Dominic Gardiner the same month, ensuring they beat the Crusaders in the Garden City for the first time in 18 years.
It’s those sorts of plays which have caught Robertson’s eyes as he plots to beat Leon MacDonald’s Blues and make it six titles in as many years.
“They have got good belief. We know it’s been built off a lot of great defensive effort,” Robertson said.
“I know Leon, I coached with him long enough, to know like our team, everything is built off the back of great D. They have defended and scrambled and taken key moments to give them opportunities, a drop goal or a late try, to keep themselves in it.”
Last week, just as the Brumbies were threatening to turf the Blues out of the competition, prop Ofa Tuungafasi, of all people, summoned the energy to charge down a potential game-winning drop goal at the death.
That’s the type of play Robertson is talking about – the big difference between this year’s Blues and past squads.
They have not lost since Ardie Savea’s Hurricanes rocked them with a late burst in round one, notching a franchise-record 15 straight wins.
Including their memorable 27-23 drought-breaking win over the Crusaders, five of their scalps have been by four or fewer points.
Forget the flashy stuff they’ve long been renowned for. This year’s Blues know how to win ugly, how to close out tight matches they would have butchered not so long ago.
“The Blues have been exceptional all year. They are on a hell of a run, the last time they lost at Eden Park…it’s been a while. They have made the Garden pretty special,” Robertson said.
“So, for us, it’s a hell of a week to go up there and a hell of a rivalry – just what Super Rugby needs. We are excited. It’s the perfect opportunity for us.”
Indeed, the Crusaders boast an impressive 11-4 record in 15 previous finals, and have conceded an average of just 13 points in those fixtures.
All Blacks name six uncapped players, with halfbacks TJ Perenara and Brad Weber the high-profile omissions.
All things considered, including forecast rain in Auckland, no wonder little separates the teams at the bookies, with the hosts paying $1.80 and the Crusaders $1.92 in the head-to-head stakes.
Having left the comfort of Christchurch, where they are unbeaten in 27 home playoff games, Robertson downplayed comparisons to 2017, when the Crusaders went to Johannesburg and beat the Lions the last time they played a road final.
Fair enough, too. After all, the Crusaders have won 11 of 19 games between the sides at Eden Park, and have not lost there since 2014.
“We hadn’t won it in nine years that time. We’ve had some success in the last few years. So, probably the context of it, the narrative is a bit different. We went over there as extreme underdogs at Ellis Park, 60 odd thousand people. Hopefully it’s 50 odd thousand at Eden Park, so that side of it is the same.”
Crusaders: Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall, Cullen Grace, Tom Christie, Pablo Matera, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett (c), Oli Jager, Codie Taylor, George bower. Reservations: Brodie McAlister, Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell, Quinten Strange, Corey Kellow, Mitch Drummond, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge.
Blues: Stephen Perofeta, AJ Lam, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mark Telea, Beauden Barrett (c), Finlay Christie; Hoskins Sotutu, Adrian Choat, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reservations: Soane Vikena, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Luke Romano, Dalton Papalii/James Tucker, Sam Nock, Bryce Heem, Zarn Sullivan.