Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Date: Saturday, June 19
It may be something of s shock not to see the Crusaders in this matchup – especially since they won all five of their Trans Tasman games and picked up three bonus points along the way – but it is certainly refreshing to see a couple of different teams in the Blues and the Highlanders clashing in this first ever Trans Tasman final.
Both the Blues and the ‘Landers also went undefeated in league play, with the Blues topping the on points difference at +119 with a three way tie at the summit. The Highlanders were just being them with +103 points, pipping the Crusaders and their +97 differential as all sat on 23 points.
The key for both has been the defense, with the Blues conceding a league low 10 tries and the Highlanders being only slightly behind that and tied for second with 13 tries given up. The Highlanders, however, score more tries – 30 to the Blues 26 – though both trail the Crusaders (35) in this particular category. These two teams match up against each other really well and it should be a pulsating clash with plenty of stars on show.
The last time that the Blues won a Super Rugby title was 18 years ago and around25,000 fans are expected to be part of the experience this time around. The Blues beat the Highlanders the last time the two played in a final as they triumphed 37-31 in the 1998 semifinal.
The Blues boast eight All Blacks in their pack – and many more in their backline – and they are rightly the favorites here. They do miss Caleb Clarke on the wing – he is back in sevens rugby – but first-five Otere Black and scrum-half Finlay Christie have been excellent in this competition and will look to drive the Blues forward with their positional kicking and attacking skills.
The back row is an area of strength for this Blues team, though they will miss of the work rate of Tom Robinson after he was ruled out of this one. All Black Akira Ioane steps in – and may be the better player of the two – but Robinson has pushed this team forwards with his drive and desire at times this season in ways that have made him a folk hero in Auckland.
The Highlanders have had their hands on Super Rugby silverware much more recently than the Blues as they were crowned champions in 2015.
The Highlanders may have fewer overall stars than the Blues, but in co-captains Ash Dixon and Aaron Smith they have two absolute giants of the New Zealand game. Smith is going to have to be at his best here. The crispness of his passing and his desire to win make him the best No. 9 in the world in the opinion of many and he will have to find a way to get his outside backs the ball if the Blues forward pack starts to dominate.
I like the Blues to nudge this. The Highlanders are a great story, but the Blues defense has been on another level at times in 2021 as they are finally putting all the pieces together in a squad just full of talent. Take the Blues to win, but the ‘Landers to cover the +7 point spread at (0.90) with BetXChange.