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NZ big guns face off in Super Rugby final

Fri, 17/06/2022, 1:33 am
Reuters
by Reuters
The Crusaders hosted the Blues in a blockbuster Easter Friday clash.

An unstoppable force will meet an immovable object when the Blues take on the Crusaders in the Super Rugby Pacific final at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday.

The championship decider pits the attacking prowess of the host Blues on a 15-match winning streak against a Crusaders side that made a record 222 tackles against the Chiefs in the semi-finals to protect their perfect record in home playoffs.

Read the official Super Rugby Pacific Final Program here

With Australia's last team, the Brumbies, falling narrowly to the Blues last the weekend, the all-New Zealand final will play out in front of a sold-out stadium with players from both sides also keen to stake claims for All Blacks starting spots.

"This is set for a great occasion and is an opportunity to seal an excellent season in front of a full house at Eden Park," Blues coach Leon MacDonald said.

"We need to buckle down, do the basics right, provide good front-foot ball for our backs, and focus on doing the basics right, with discipline both with and without the ball."

The Blues finished top at the end of the regular season and are desperate to prove themselves against the 10-times champion Crusaders, who have consistently set the benchmark in the southern hemisphere competition.

The Blues won last year's one-off trans-Tasman tournament, their first championship in nearly 20 years, but the Crusaders picked up the domestic Aotearoa title, giving the South Islanders and their coach Scott Robertson a fifth crown in as many years.

The Blues' long slump before their recent revival has kept the teams apart at the sharp end of seasons but an intense rivalry built in the days of the Super 12 competition has been reawakened.

The Blues won the last time the pair clashed for the title, a 21-17 victory at home in 2003, avenging their 1998 defeat away to the Crusaders.

MacDonald, who was Robertson's teammate at the Crusaders during that period, has named captain Dalton Papalii on the bench after his recovery from appendicitis but the All Blacks flanker needs to prove himself with a late fitness test.

Robertson has brought back stalwart lock Sam Whitelock from a thumb injury in his only change to the Crusaders starting 15.

"We had a few sore bodies following the huge defensive effort last week, but everyone has come through the week really well," Robertson said.

With the All Blacks' series against Ireland kicking off next month, players on both sides have plenty to prove.

Beauden Barrett's standout season for the Blues have many pundits picking him as Ian Foster's starting flyhalf against the Irish, but Crusaders playmaker Richie Mo'unga may have something to say about that.

Blues: Stephen Perofeta, A.J. Lam, Rieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mark Telea, Beauden Barrett (capt), Finlay Christie, Hoskins Sotutu, Adrian Choat, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reserves: Soane Vikena, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Luke Romano, Dalton Papalii/James Tucker, Sam Nock, Bryce Heem, Zarn Sullivan.

Crusaders: Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Cullen Grace, Tom Christie, Pablo Matera, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett (capt), Oli Jager, Codie Taylor, George Bower. Reserves: Brodie McAlister, Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell, Quenten Strange, Corey Kellow, Mitch Drummond, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge.

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