With one round remaining, all the evidence points to the Blues hosting a Super Rugby final on Saturday, June 19.
The occasion will be the showpiece of the Trans-Tasman competition which has been a terribly one-sided affair in favour of the Kiwi teams (the record is now 16-2), but regardless, the Blues and their supporters will be on tenterhooks at the thought of winning their first silverware since 2003, and while the second-placed Highlanders are in with a good show of joining them, the Crusaders loom as the side with the better chance of playing at Eden Park.
The Blues host the Western Force this Saturday after the men from Perth struck back at the death to deny the Crusaders a winning bonus point in Christchurch in what was a bizarre finish for the defending champions, whose expressions afterwards belonged to a losing team.
Leon MacDonald’s men, who failed to win with the bonus point against the Reds in Brisbane, are one competition point ahead of the Highlanders and Crusaders and so will make sure of their place in the final if they score three more tries in a victory over the Force. Even a modest win will likely be enough due to their healthy points differential (+109 compared with +82 for the Highlanders and +71 for the Crusaders).
Of the Highlanders and Crusaders, the southern men face the tougher final hurdle; the Brumbies in Canberra compared with the Rebels in Sydney (due to Victoria’s ongoing COVID difficulties) for the Crusaders.
The Brumbies’ performance in the 12-10 victory over the Hurricanes, which sent the Kiwi team from second on the table at the start of the weekend to fourth and almost certainly out of the finals running, was a triumph of defensive grit over a side not used to facing anything like it.
A backline containing Ngani Laumape, Salesi Ryasi, Matt Proctor, Julian Savea and Wes Goosen was almost comically tamed by an opposition that just kept charging in and tackling. And while the Brumbies had fewer opportunities, they made more of them. The second-half introduction of halfback Nic White will be regarded as a game changer because of his assist for Len Ikitau’s try but the centre deserves the plaudits for his impressive balance and pace to break through to the line.
The Brumbies had luck – Alex Fidow was over with six minutes remaining following an impressive run but the try was ruled out on review due to an Ardie Savea knock-on in the build-up – and they had to watch as Jordie Barrett missed two penalties in the final two minutes.
But on balance they deserved it; not only because they outscored the Hurricanes two tries to one, but because of their draw and their challenges leading up to this point. This was their first game at home after a horror introduction which saw them play the Crusaders, Chiefs and Blues in New Zealand on consecutive weekends. No Kiwi team has had to play three matches in a row on the road.
They may also have felt slightly short changed when Hurricanes loose forward Du’Plessis Kirifi was shown only a yellow card for a late and high tackle on lock Darcy Swain (shoulder to jaw), which not surprisingly sent Swain for a head injury assessment from which he didn’t return.
The justification by Kiwi referee Paul Williams to only sin-bin Kirifi was Swain’s dropping motion in the act of being hit. Brumbies supporters will feel it wasn’t significant enough to warrant that mitigation.
“We knew coming to Canberra was going to be a tough one and the Brumbies were going to bring it physically, and they certainly did that,’’ Ardie Savea said afterwards.
“It’s been a tough month,” said Brumbies coach Dan McKellar. “You go back to the grand final [against Reds] and that’s one that we’ll probably never get over.
“We managed to get ourselves up for the Crusaders [following the final] and we were unlucky against a team I consider the best in the world.
“The last two weeks we’ve just been disappointing and we were disappointed last week with how we performed in what was a significant game. But we stuck tight and stuck at it … just really proud we squeezed out a result against a quality side.”
It’s clear the Brumbies will now be a challenge for a Highlanders team who kept themselves in the running most recently after demolishing the Waratahs, the only Australian team that haven’t improved through this competition, 59-23 in Dunedin.
The Highlanders will come up against a defensively tight team with a good set piece containing a form loose forward in Rob Valetini, a man who enhanced his reputation during the team’s tour of New Zealand and who possesses a generous amount of X-factor along with the ability to hit like a utility vehicle.
The southerners will be under pressure from the kick-off to score tries and plenty of them, and the Crusaders have the advantage of taking the Leichardt Oval pitch in Sydney against the Rebels knowing exactly what they have to do to make the final.
With Richie Mo’unga, Sam Whitelock, George Bower, Sevu Reece and Oli Jager missing against the Force, the Crusaders were a little underpowered, although the recklessness of their actions in the final minute in attempting to score another try only to cough up the ball and allow the Force to counter and effectively take their bonus point did not go unremarked by coach Scott Robertson.
“We talked through all the scenarios if we were up and what it would look like,” he said shortly after the match.
“Five points is five points, and when you’re 15 up, you could walk out of there after a dogged performance against the Force, but we were still trying to score and it was a great turnover [that sparked the final counter].
“Like I said, we stayed in the fight, so we could have been better with our game management.”
This week the Crusaders are disadvantaged in terms of their points differential compared with the Highlanders, but they probably have slightly the easier challenge in terms of the Rebels at a neutral venue rather than a side on the up and back at their fortress in a chilly Canberra.
They also have the pedigree – five Super titles in a row – motivation, pack and attacking weapons to put a big score on the men from Melbourne, whose best result in Super Rugby TT is a 36-26 defeat to the Chiefs at Leichardt Oval.
Nothing less than a place in the final will be acceptable in terms of the Crusaders’ strategic goal for the season, and while the Blues have the free-wheeling game well-suited to hurting the Australian teams, the Crusaders are a different story.
There may be a few twists and turns yet in a competition that has appeared predictable from the start but which has thrown up a few late surprises, but the old rivalry between the two most successful Kiwi franchises may be set to be reignited.
The Blues’ opponents at Eden Park back in 2003? The Crusaders, of course.