Venue – FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton
Date: Saturday, June 24
This is the way that this was supposed to be. The top two teams throughout the 14-match Super Rugby season are the two teams left standing to face each other in the Grand Final. While the Blues, Brumbies, and Hurricanes all looked good at times in 2023 – and while the Fijian Drua captured the imagination of the public with their squash-bucking style of play – it always felt like this should come down to the Crusaders taking on the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The Chiefs were imperious in 2023. They finished the season with 13 wins and just one defeat from their 14 games, finally putting a full season together after threatening to do just that for the past few years. Their one defeat was to the Reds – which they avenged in the quarter-final – and they booked this home final with a 19-6 win over the Brumbies last weekend.
By their insane standards, the Crusaders took the road less traveled to this final. They sat with one win and two defeats after a stunning defeat at the hands of the Drua in Round 3 but picked themselves up to win nine of their last 11 regular season games. So far, they have been deadly in the finals, crushing the Drua 49-8 in the quarters before blasting the Blues 52-15 in an eye-opening result last weekend. They are determined to keep the Super Rugby trophy in Christchurch.
The best thing for the Chiefs is that they have this match in Hamilton. The ‘Saders home playoff record is astonishing. They have won 29 knockout rugby matches in a row in Christchurch, a streak that dates back to 1998. Christchurch isn’t quite Invercargill, but in June conditions – when the winter is coming in, and the ground is a little frosty on the South Island – the Chiefs will much prefer the milder climate in their North Island home.
The last time the Chiefs won the trophy was in 2013, and they have done everything this season to show they can beat the dominant force in Super Rugby here. Sam Cane will be making his 150th appearance for the team in the biggest club game of his career, and it is alongside him in the back row where the Chiefs make their only change as Pit Gus-Sowakula comes in for Samipeni Finau.
The last time the Crusaders didn’t lift the Super Rugby trophy (excluding Covid-19 nonsense when they still won domestic-only trophies) was when the Hurricanes won the comp in 2016. It has been a stunning run, and their p[layoff form suggests that the team wants this as badly as ever as a going-away present for soon-to-be All Blacks head coach Scotty Robertson.
They are also saying goodbye to Sam Whitelock (France) and Richie Mo’unga (Japan), with the latter making a stunning move while at the peak of his powers. Expect the Crusaders pack to put the same breakdown pressure on the Chiefs that they did on the Blues, as this was where the ‘Saders won the semi-final.
The Chiefs beat the Crusaders home and away in the regular season. Their 31-10 win in Christchurch was their biggest performance of the season, but this is playoff rugby now. The Crusaders excel in these games. Their whole team can amp up to another level, and their experience of knowing what it takes to win in a final gives them a slight edge for me.