Super Rugby Pacific Final: Blues v Crusaders
Where: Eden Park, Auckland
When: Saturday, June 18, 7:05 PM
Live coverage: Sky Sport 1, live updates on Stuff
The Blues have a lot to offer them on their way to Super Rugby final on Saturday that could just, if not stop, at least grab a nation’s attention. They’re hotter than fish fat, home to a sold-out crowd of 42,000, and have a lineup that exudes X-factor and star quality.
But it’s not the big names that will win the franchise its fourth Super Rugby title (and its first since 2003), but the little things, according to the two Auckland outfit men who know the most about lifting the silverware. at the end of the season, coach Leon MacDonald and lock veteran Luke Romano.
The game is going to be a spectacular affair.
Both have, of course, done this on numerous occasions with the Crusaders, who meet the Blues in Saturday’s final and have an astonishing record in the Southern Hemisphere’s flagship franchise competition – 10-time champions, plus two of the Aotearoa variety. MacDonald won six titles as a player with the Crusaders between 1997 and 2009 and another as assistant to current supercoach Scott Robertson in 2017.
† Super Rugby Pacific Final: Old Friends Scott Robertson, Leon MacDonald Draw Battle Lines
† Dalton Papalii BTW on Blues bench for Super Rugby Pacific final against Crusaders
† Luke Romano opens up at Crusaders Super Rugby Pacific final matchup: ‘Just another game’
Romano, who may well be on the cusp of putting the finishing touches to an outstanding 14-year professional career, was of course a loyal Crusaders until the Blues lured him north to use his considerable experience and tough approach to their cause in 2022. In his 11 seasons with the red-and-black machine (2011-21) he won three full titles (2017-19), two Aotearoa crowns (2020-21), became a finalist twice (2011 and ’14) and twice a semifinalist. final reports (2012 and ’13).
In fact, Romano has only played Super Rugby once (2015) for a season and did not make it to at least the quarter-finals.
MacDonald, who oversaw a dramatic four-year rejuvenation of the once-tainted Blues, gave a succinct assessment of what wins Grand Finals.
“The foundation is important,” he said. “Setpiece is critical, you need to make sure your tackles matter, holding the ball and not giving it away easily… all the small wins need to be collected. You’re also trying to shut out the opposition – it’s your job to stop them.
“Generally people talk about defense and that’s huge because it’s going to be a tighter game. It won’t be an open game, if it’s two tries apiece that’s probably about it. You’re not going to go five or six see attempts, so your defense has to be good.”
Romano offered a variation on the same finale theme.
“It comes down to who wins those little moments,” said the 36-year-old who will come off the bench for a likely cameo in the final quarter. “There could be a loose ball on the ground. Who is willing to dive in and put their body on the line, or get off the ground just a little faster to get back into the D-line, or go around the corner to be an option in the attack?
“It’s those little things that people probably don’t see that make all the difference. You also have to react and adapt to how a game develops. Your game plan may not work and you will need to adjust that according to the way the game is going. There’s a certain way we want to play, a certain way they want to play, and both defenses are trying to stop that.”
The Blues have every chance, provided they don’t blink now. Riding a 15-game winning streak into their fifth full final (including a 27-23 win in Christchurch), they have lost exactly once since the add-on Trans-Tasman competition began in mid-May ’21 (she won that at technically end an 18-year trophy drought). On their remarkable run this year, they have displayed an uncanny ability to cross the line in the tightest of finishes, exemplified by last weekend’s 20-19 semi-final beeper against the Brumbies.
They also possess that star factor, with 11 of their 12 current All Blacks lined up (Caleb Clarke still out with his hamstring; Dalton Papalii down to get off the couch if he feels like it), as well as a few recent test types in Romano and loosehead Alex Hodgman.
In Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane they have arguably New Zealand’s brightest backline stars, and with Fin Christie, new AB’s Stephen Perofeta and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the in-form Mark Telea they have difference makers galore across the wider channels. . Up front loose strikers Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu, a daunting four-prop rotation and manual laborers Kurt Eklund and Tom Robinson should ensure the famed Crusaders pack meets its match.
MacDonald says the winning streak is a “confirmation” that what they’re doing is working and that if things get tight, don’t panic. “We’ve defended our line to save a 24 stage game, we’ve taken drop goals to win games, we’ve broken open games, we even beat them in Christchurch…so many lessons this year are holding us up well useful.”
Romano’s message is simple. Remember it’s still a game of rugby, do what you do best and seize the day. “A lot of times these games come down to one or two key moments. Once you’ve nailed those details in training, you can grab them and make them your moments when they present themselves.”
Blues: Stephen Perofeta, AJ Lam, Roieko Ioane, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mark Telea, Beauden Barrett (c), Finlay Christie; Hoskins Sotutu, Adrian Choat, Akira Ioane, Tom Robinson, Josh Goodhue, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Reservations: Soane Vikena, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Luke Romano, Dalton Papali/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 (c), Oli Jager, Codie Taylor, George Bower. Reservations: Brodie McAlister, Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell, Quinten Strange, Corey Kellow, Mitch Drummond, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (NZ).
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