Has the 'crescendo' of Super Rugby Pacific come early?
Super Rugby Aotearoa may have been scrapped this year in favour of a trans-Tasman competition but it looks like we’re still set for a New Zealand final of sorts on Friday night when the Blues take on the Crusaders in Christchurch.
While Super Rugby Pacific was originally supposed to run like any round-robin tournament, with teams from NZ regularly taking on Australian opposition (and vice-versa) throughout the year, Covid forced changes to the draw, effectively segregating the two nations until the halfway point of the season. That means from next week until the end of the regular season, trans-Tasman derbies will be the name of the game.
The postponement of matches earlier in the season has also flipped the competition on its head somewhat. While the Blues and Crusaders were initially supposed to square off in Round 5 but due to several positive Covid cases in both squads, it has been rescheduled to this weekend.
Sometimes, fate can deal a cruel hand. Front-loading the season with derbies has undoubtedly seen some fans turn off from the competition thanks to the repetitive nature of some matches. While the fixture between the Chiefs and Crusaders has always been a hum-dinger, the 26 March clash marked the eighth time the two teams have squared off in the space of two and a half years.
On the flip side, the postponement of the Crusaders match against the Blues has ensured a bumper finish to the derby section of the season, with Friday evening’s match essentially acting as a Super Rugby Aotearoa final. There may not be a trophy on offer, but whoever scores a victory in Christchurch will go into the knockout rounds knowing they have a big psychological advantage over their traditional rival, should they meet again at some stage. With the Blues and Crusaders currently occupying second and third spots on the ladder at present, it would not come as a shock to see these two teams meet again in the grand final, set to be held on the 18th of June.
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Without a doubt, the Blues and Crusaders are currently the front-runners in the competition.
Both sides have suffered just a solitary loss to date, with those defeats coming after the final buzzer.
In the Blues’ case, that was their opening round match against the Hurricanes where they held a 32-14 lead going into the final 10 minutes of the game, only to see the Wellingtonians nab three tries – including one in the final play of the game – to take home the spoils.
It was a similar story in the Crusaders’ loss to the Chiefs in Christchurch, with the visiting side banking 14 points in the final five minutes of the match to steal the game after the hooter.
Those games aside, the Blues have relatively comfortably dealt to the challenges of the Highlanders, Chiefs and Moana Pasifika, with only the Eden Park clash with the Chiefs a bit of a heart-stopper, with Bryn Gatland missing a long-distance penalty kick at the end of the match which would have stolen the victory from the home team. The Blues more than made up for that close win with a comfortable victory in the return fixture, smashing the Chiefs 25-0 in Hamilton last weekend.
Similarly, the Crusaders have never quite clicked into top gear but still looked relatively composed even when under pressure against the likes of the Hurricanes and Highlanders.
While it feels like both teams have plenty of room to grow over the coming trans-Tasman clashes, Friday night’s fixture will set a marker in the sand for any further head-to-heads down the track.
“No, we haven’t quite billed it like that,” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson responded this week when asked whether the Crusaders were treating this match like a New Zealand final.
“We take it back and just make sure our preparation leads to a really good performance. We have our mindset for the week and we build off the back of that [and] there’s finals footy at the end of [the season].
“In a lot of ways, this is probably the crescendo to the end of the New Zealand league before we get on tour with the Aussies,” he admitted.
While the Blues haven’t recorded a single win in Christchurch since 2004, when the likes of Carlos Spencer, Joe Rokocoko and Justin Collins combined in the final passage of the game to score one of the greatest tries in Super Rugby history, ranging from one in-goal to the other, despite the Blues already holding a two-point lead.
Whether it’s by one, two or 14 points, the Blues won’t care how victory comes about on Good Friday if they can manage a rare scalp on Crusaders’ turf.
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