The stage is set for a historic humdinger in Hamilton as the Chiefs host the Crusaders in the Super Rugby Pacific final on Saturday (09:05 kick-off), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The competition may have gone Pacific, but New Zealand teams continue to dominate. Fittingly, what has been the two top teams all season will do battle in yet another all-Kiwi decider, one that has the makings of a classic.
It’s the irresistible force in a Chiefs side who’ve lost just once all year (25-22 to the Reds) against the immovable object in the Crusaders, who’ve made the Super Rugby perch their penthouse as 11-time champions.
Both teams play a complete brand of rugby. They have flair and firepower aplenty, dogged defence and little to no weaknesses.
Having done the double over the Crusaders in the regular reason, the Chiefs enter their home final as favourites. The men from Waikato used the opening round clash in Christchurch to make their title intentions known, coming from 10-0 down to romp to a remarkable 31-10 victory.
Damian McKenzie, who’s arguably been the Player of the Season in the No 10 jersey for the Chiefs, then starred in the return fixture to guide his team to a 34-24 win. On those two nights, Clayton McMillian’s men proved more capable of absorbing pressure on the defensive front and cashing in when the tide turned.
Super Rugby has always been viewed as an expansive variant of the sport, however, structured, mean-spirited D has been the hallmark of the Chiefs’ game this season. This was highlighted in both their 29-20 quarter-final and 19-6 semi-final triumphs over the Reds and Brumbies respectively.
That’s not to say the Crusaders have shied away from the rough stuff. They’ve been stoic on defence as well, but the Chiefs’ line speed and intensity have been unrivalled.
As is usually the case, the Crusaders once again top the try-scoring stats with 78 (the Chiefs are fourth with 68). Six of those came in last weekend’s 52-15 demolition of the Blues, which showed that even without several injured stars, the Christchurch crew remain as lethal as they come.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that it was a pack-powered pummelling. Looking ahead, the Chiefs might have the edge at the breakdown, but the ‘Saders have the better scrum and lineout.
Given they defeated the defending champions twice, finished at the top of the log and the fact that they’ll have home-ground advantage, it’s understandable why the Chiefs are the favourites.
However, the Blues did the same and were made to endure a heart-breaking 21-7 loss to Scott Robertson’s side in last year’s decider. The Crusaders are masters of finals rugby and that’s the key difference of this third meeting with the Chiefs.
No other club lift their game and come up clutch as proficiently and consistently as the Crusaders. They’re poised under pressure, calm amidst chaos and comfortable under the brightest lights, which is why I’m tipping them – as juicy underdogs – to give Robertson a fitting farewell in his last dance.