Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Date: Saturday 18 June
Giving due respect to the Chiefs and Brumbies who put in valiant efforts against the Crusaders and Blues respectively last weekend, this is the Super Rugby Pacific final that we all want to see.
The first thing to note about this final is how close the two teams are in the betting. The spread for this one is 0.5 points in the favor of the Blues, essentially making it a pick-em contest. Given that home advantage is usually worth two or three points, this means that the Crusaders are fancied by many to end the Blues’ winning streak and claim another Super Rugby crown.
The Blues have won 13 matches in a row and when a team hits a streak like that they become incredibly difficult to beat. The belief in the team is palpable for all watching as they have shaken the label earned a few years ago as being flakey in big moments.
The Crusaders were ridiculous defensively in their win over the Chiefs last weekend. The Chiefs simply had all the ball – at one point having 100% possession and territory for 10 minutes – and yet only scored one try. The defensive effort and teamwork were stunning as the Crusaders racked up an astonishing 254 tackles in their 20-7 win.
The Blues are keeping the same forward pack that did enough to eke out a win by a single point over the Brumbies last weekend. Adrian Choat is once again starting at openside – he is the only player to have been picked for every game this season – and there is dynamic impact from the bench in the form of All Blacks Karl Tu’inukuafe ad Ofa Tuungafasi. The question mark for the Blues up front is the health of captain Dalton Papalii. He hasn’t played for two weeks after an appendix operation and is in a fitness fight to be ready to take his place on the bench here.
The news is better in the backline in terms of comebacks as Rieko Ioane will return from injury to partner the scintillating Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in the centers. Caleb Clarke will be their most high-profile player to miss the final after his hamstring injury late in the season.
The Crusaders were bolstered on two fronts this week in the lead-up to the final. Sam Whitelock will be back in at lock after recovering from a thumb injury picked up in training the week of the semifinal. His inclusion and a promotion to the bench of Quinten Strange mean that Zach Gallagher misses out.
The other news was that Argentine enforcer Pablo Matera was cleared by the judiciary committee and can play in the final. Matera was (perhaps unluckily) red-carded last weekend for a pair of incidents that resulted in yellow cards. The incidents were deemed to not be part of a pattern of offending and Matera can play here in what will likely be his final match for the Crusaders.
Eden Park is going to be absolutely rocking on Saturday. They will also go home happy as the Blues will have enough firepower in their halfbacks and centers to overcome the experience advantage of the Crusaders and win covering the 0.5 points they are giving in this final.