'It's huge': What the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final means to the Highlanders - and why the Blues are underdogs
The Blues will host the Highlanders at Eden Park on Saturday for the tournament’s inaugural, and potentially only, final after dispatching all five Australian teams without dropping a match.
By outscoring the also unbeaten Crusaders, both teams have qualified for the final, but questions have arisen about the credibility of the competition due to the stark contrast between the abilities of the New Zealand and Australian franchises.
The Kiwi sides romped to 23 wins from 25 matches, while the competition has also come under criticism as the New Zealand sides avoided having to play each other throughout the tournament’s five-week span.
Perhaps the biggest concern raised by sceptics is that neither the Blues nor Highlanders had to play the highly-regarded Crusaders, who have won the last five available Super Rugby titles, en route to this weekend’s final.
However, Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod earlier this week that both teams need to be given credit for their efforts in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Speaking on the Highlanders’ campaign, Wheeler said his former side have come on in leaps and bounds after enduring an underwhelming Super Rugby Aotearoa season that provided no shortage of hurdles for the Dunedin-based outfit.
Multiple off-field controversies – such as excessive partying by six squad members, including star playmaker Josh Ioane, and Shannon Frizell’s alleged involvement in an assault on a woman – compounded the many season-ending injuries sustained by key players.
Add in the unexpected departure of head coach Tony Brown to Japan on the eve of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman and a disruptive travel schedule that saw Queenstown robbed of its first Super Rugby match in over a decade, and there was plenty that could have derailed the Highlanders’ season.
Nevertheless, the southerners have forged ahead and will now compete for their first piece of silverware since 2015, a feat of which Wheeler said shouldn’t be discredited.
“I think, from a Highlanders perspective, where we’ve come from this season from obviously finishing fourth in Super Rugby Aotearoa to then going five from five, but also face the adversity they’ve faced,” Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“They’ve had 13 guys from their original squad out with season-ending injuries, some individuals have had off-field indiscretions that has really cost the team in a couple of games this year, and then to only have two current ABs [All Blacks] in the squad, it’s an unbelievable effort by this team to be in this situation.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 15, 2021
“I know people are going to say, ‘Well you haven’t played the Crusaders, how can you actually claim to be champions because you haven’t actually taken the five-time champions’, or whatever they are.
“But, I think to be in that position, everyone knew the rules, it was a points race. To be able to compile enough bonus points and enough points to be in this position, to be in a final, I think both these two teams should be really proud of their efforts.”
Parsons agreed that the two best teams in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman have deservedly qualified for the final by virtue of outscoring their competitors.
The former two-test All Black added that after years of mediocrity following the Blues’ last final appearance in 2003, the magnitude of being able to host this weekend’s final in Auckland won’t be lost on the franchise or its supporters.
“For the Blues, I think we all know what it means to this team and this city. We get ridiculed,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod as he referenced his former side’s lacklustre playoffs record which reads just one visit to the post-season in 18 years.
“It will mean a lot to the group, but also to the city, and I hope we get a packed house because there’s been a lot of grief, and rightly so.
“We haven’t made a final. We haven’t made finals for a long time, since 2011, but we’re here. Home final, finally, so get in behind it and celebrate it and no doubt the boys will be putting in a big shift to make sure we get the rewards.”
Caleb Clarke’s pursuit for Olympic glory has received a boost as he has been named in an extended All Blacks Sevens squad to play at the Oceania Sevens in Townsville next weekend. #AllBlacksSevens #OceaniaSevens #TokyoOlympics #Tokyo2020 https://t.co/hAqKeG5JGD
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 15, 2021
While the second-seeded Highlanders are widely considered underdogs for the final, Parsons maintained that the Blues deserve underdog status given the similarities between the Dunedin side’s run to the final this year and in 2015.
“They’re doing this 2015 [playoffs run]. The same story was coming out of the camp in 2015, the old backs against the wall,” he said in reference to the challenges the Highlanders have had to overcome this season.
“The Blues are underdogs, mate, I’m telling you. The Highlanders have got the finals experience. Joey said it. They’re just galvanised.”
Wheeler laughed off those claims, though, as he said the Blues can’t be considered underdogs “with their nine All Blacks” in their ranks.
Both teams will name their match day sides for the final on Thursday, with kick-off for the final scheduled for 7:05pm local time.
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
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