The latest episode in New Zealand’s most intense rivalry will be played out on Saturday when the Crusaders and Blues face each other in the Super Rugby Pacific final.
Their storied feud dates back 139 years to when the two most successful sides in New Zealand clashed for the first time, with Auckland narrowly coming out on top.
At a provincial level, Auckland hold a slight edge, but in Super Rugby it’s Canterbury who dominate. They have 12 titles while the Blues, who are on a 15-match winning streak, are chasing their fifth.
“It’s a helluva week to go up there and a helluva rivalry,” Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said ahead of the final at Eden Park in Auckland.
“There’s going to be drama,” added Blues coach Leon MacDonald, a former Crusaders’ stalwart who won two Super titles playing alongside Robertson, and later won another two as his assistant coach, before heading north to Auckland.
Between them, the Blues and Crusaders will field 22 of the 36-man All Blacks squad named this week for the three-Test series against Ireland in July.
Several positions will serve as an All Blacks trial before the Test starting lineup is decided, particularly at flyhalf, where Beauden Barrett faces Richie Mo’unga.
There are also family ties with Barrett leading the Blues and brother Scott captaining the Crusaders, while Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue has his twin brother Josh at lock for the Blues.
Amid the pre-match hype, Robertson has turned to former Crusaders headliners for advice on handling the build-up.
The word from Robbie Deans, who coached the Crusaders to five Super titles and has now won five in Japan with the Wild Knights, was to “keep things simple”, Robertson said.
“And I was talking to Richie McCaw yesterday and he just gives a little bit that confirms what you’re thinking and what’s required.”
In the Blues camp, MacDonald believes his side’s winning streak, including a first victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch since 2004, provides the confidence needed for success.
“We use it as confirmation that what we’ve done in the past is working and we don’t need to reinvent anything this week,” MacDonald said, emphasising he not longer felt any allegiance to the Crusaders.
“We’ve got a different mindset up here in Auckland than the South Island. I’ve adapted to that and grown in terms of opening my mind. There’s different ways of doing things, you don’t have to do it the same way.”
MacDonald also dismissed Robertson’s opinion that there was a Crusaders’ influence in the Blues. “That’s his observation, I don’t see that. I think this group has made its own way,” he said.
“I’ve changed a lot since I’ve been here, our game is our game and it’s different to theirs.”
The one change to the Crusaders sees veteran lock Sam Whitelock return from a thumb injury. The Blues have bracketed Dalton Papali’i on the bench as their regular captain recovers from having his appendix removed two weeks ago.
© Agence France-Presse