Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Final - teams and predictions
REDEMPTION: It’s been an agonising 18-year wait for the Blues to reach a Final and coach Leon MacDonald admits Saturday’s decider against the Highlanders will be “special”.
Once a Super Rugby powerhouse, the Blues won the last of their three titles in 2003 and until this year had not even made the playoffs since 2011.
But they have excelled in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, which pitted New Zealand’s teams against Australia’s, exposing a gulf in class as Kiwi teams won 23 of the 25 matches.
The Blues’ presence in the Final is still a minor upset, as is the absence of the Crusaders, who have swept all before them in recent years.
The Christchurch-based team narrowly missed the decider on points differential, after finishing level on the ladder with the Blues and Highlanders.
The Highlanders’ sole title came in 2015 and bookmakers, perhaps surprisingly, rate them outsiders to claim the title at Eden Park on Saturday.
While they boast only one starting All Black in scrumhalf Aaron Smith, MacDonald rated the Highlanders a “scary” proposition not to be underestimated.
“They’ve been outstanding all season,” he said.
“They have excellent set-piece, they’re very accurate and they have some dangerous attacking players – it should be a whale of a game.”
The teams met twice in Super Rugby Aotearoa this year, with honours even at one win apiece.
MacDonald took over the Blues at the end of 2018 and set about rebuilding the team’s culture and structures.
The spectacular decline since 2003 was particularly frustrating for Blues fans as the team had the largest talent pool in New Zealand but constantly allowed promising youngsters to move elsewhere and flourish.
A wealth of coaching talent came and went – including Pat Lam, John Kirwan and Tana Umaga – without realising the Blues’ undoubted potential.
MacDonald has sought to instil discipline and teamwork into a side that previously relied too heavily on flashes of individual brilliance.
He said it had come together during Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
“We’ve been more consistent this time. Our defence has been strong, we’ve been smarter and had more discipline,” he said.
“We’ve thrown away trying to play the miracle ball and focused on playing in the right part of the field, off the back of a good set-piece.”
The Blues still possess eye-catching ball runners such as Rieko Ioane and Finlay Christie, who they will need to combine with a hard-grafting forward pack to overcome the Highlanders.
Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon, who will run out for his 100th game for the side, is wary of the Blues’ x-factor players.
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“It’s going to be tough,” Dixon said.
“I’m not going to make any qualms about it,” he added.
“They can all play ball, they’re big carriers, strong on defence, big physical humans.
“They are pretty much twice the size of our team.
” I’m just looking forward to a good challenge, and giving it a crack,” he said.
Eden Park was a tough place to win.
“We’re from the deep south, a place that’s small and quiet, heading up to the big smoke to enjoy it, and get amongst it,” he said.
Players to watch
For the Blues: Akira Ioane will have a crucial role, as he starts in the place of blindside flank forward Tom Robinson, who is sidelined due to a head knock. The other Ioane brother, Rieko, will have an equally important role to play in the midfield. The hard-working openside flank Dalton Papalii holds the key to breakdown dominance. And then there are the set pieces.
For the Highlanders: Damaging left wing Jona Nareki and second row enforcer Pari Pari Parkinson both left the field early against the Brumbies last weekend after suffering shoulder knocks and were possible exclusions for the grand final. However, both have been judged fit for the game. Then there is talismanic scrumhalf Aaron Smith – the most influential player in the game.
Head to head
The Highlanders will be aiming for back-to-back wins over the Blues in Super Rugby for the first time since a four-match span from March 2017 to April 2018, after defeating them 35-29 in their most recent meeting (Round Eight, Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021). The Blues have won each of their last three Super Rugby home matches against the Highlanders, as many as they won in their seven such fixtures prior. This will be the second meeting between the Blues and Highlanders in a Super Rugby play-off fixture – the Blues defeated the Highlanders (37-31) in the 1998 semifinal. This will be the Blues’ fifth Super Rugby Final. The Auckland side have won three of their previous four, with that one defeat coming in 1998 (13-20 v Crusaders). This will be the Highlanders’ third Super Rugby Final. The Dunedin side have one victory (21-14 v Hurricanes, 2015) and one defeat (19-24 v Crusaders, 1999) from their two previous matches at this stage. The Blues have conceded 15.8 points per game in the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season, the fewest of any team; the Highlanders (19.2) have conceded the third fewest in the campaign (Hurricanes – 18.6). The Highlanders (89 percent) and the Blues (87 percent) have the best and second-best tackle success rates of any team in the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season. Bryce Heem (Blues) has made 11 clean breaks in the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season, the joint-most by any player (also Filipo Daugunu – Queensland Reds and Ngani Laumape – Hurricanes); Heem has also recorded the best average gain per carry of any of the 162 players to run with the ball on 15+ occasions in the competition this year (11.3 metres, 396 metres from 35 carries). Mitch Hunt (Highlanders) has made 48 kicks in play in the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season, the joint most of any player in the competition (level with Jordie Barrett); five of those kicks resulted in an error from the opposition – over twice as many as any other player. Blues’ duo Patrick Tuipulotu and Gerard Cowley-Tuioti have made the joint-most line-out steals (4 each) of all players in the 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman season.
@rugby365com: Blues by nine points
Blues: 15 Zarn Sullivan, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Otere Black, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Joshua Goodhue, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 AJ Lam.
Highlanders: 15 Josh Ioane, 14 Patelesio Tomkinson, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Scott Gregory, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Hugh Renton, 5 Bryn Evans, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Ethan de Groot.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 James Lentjes, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Sam Gilbert, 23 Teariki Ben-Nicholas.
Date: Saturday, June 19
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19.05 (07.05 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe & Paul Williams
TMO: Brendon Pickerill
Sources: AFP & superrugby.co.nz
* Statistic provided by Opta Data