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'It wasn't a relief at all': Blues coach Leon MacDonald takes no pleasure in Crusaders' final miss

By Tom Vinicombe

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The Blues will play in their first Super Rugby final in 17 years next weekend when they take on the Highlanders in the Trans-Tasman grand final.

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Their 31-21 win over the Western Force on Saturday evening was enough to jump them to the top of the table, despite New Zealand’s four other franchises also recording victories over their Australian opposition in the final round.

It may not have been the most comprehensive of victories, having built a 28-0 lead at halftime but fading as the game went on, but coach Leon MacDonald will be confident that his side will have enough firepower to take down the highflying Highlanders, who have a mammoth injury-list.

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That being said, the Blues haven’t had the easiest of times against the southerners this year, coming up trumps in their first fixture at Eden Park but being well accounted for in Dunedin in their most recent encounter.

Still, it will likely be an easier sea to navigate than if the Crusaders had scored one extra try in their win over the Rebels – which would have handed them hosting rights for the final, instead of finishing up in third place.

Following the win, Leon MacDonald suggested that a Crusaders-less Super Rugby final – the first since 2016 – might not be the worst thing for rugby in New Zealand.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “There are two teams who genuinely believe they can win a title … the Highlanders will be backing their chances as well. Is it good thing for New Zealand rugby? I think it’s a great thing for the Blues. We’re pretty stoked about the opportunity ahead.”

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Having played 122 matches for the Crusaders during his younger years, however, there would have been a little bit of a twist to the story if MacDonald’s Blues had to travel down to Christchurch to wrestle a trophy off his former side.

Since MacDonald took over as head coach in 2019, the Blues are yet to record a victory over the Crusaders – the team they beat in the grand final the last time they won a Super title.

In fact, it’s been seven years since their last win over the red and black machine, which would’ve made things very difficult had the Crusaders booked a spot in the ultimate game of the season.

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Still, MacDonald suggested he wasn’t “relieved” that his charges wouldn’t be facing up against the Crusaders next weekend.

“I don’t know how I felt about [the Crusaders missing out],” he said. “If you sit there and think about the perfect scenario, to beat the Crusaders at home would be magic. But to play the Highlanders is going to be a great game as well. They’ll use the ball well, and they play great rugby.

“It wasn’t a relief at all. It was an ‘OK, now we know what we need to do’, and that was more important.”

While the Blues have managed more Super Rugby titles than the Highlanders, nabbing three throughout the competition’s 26-year history, the southerners have tasted more recent success, besting the Hurricanes in Wellington in 2015.

Their form in recent weeks means MacDonald and the Blues will be prepared for a massive challenge come Saturday evening.

“They deserve to be there,” he said. “They’ve been consistently doing their thing in the background the whole tournament, and they’ve got better and better to the point now where they’re a scary threat.”

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'It wasn't a relief at all': Blues coach Leon MacDonald takes no pleasure in Crusaders' final miss

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