(Reuters) - The Auckland Blues have shed their reputation for maddening inconsistency in five dominant weeks and can now seal their first championship in 18 years when they meet the Otago Highlanders in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final on Saturday.
Since the last of the Blues' three titles in 2003, fans have had little to celebrate but they will flock to Eden Park expecting a long-awaited trophy after seeing their talent-laden team click under coach Leon MacDonald.
"It’s new for us, a final," said former New Zealand flyhalf MacDonald, whose 2018 appointment halted a coaching merry-go-round at the Blues.
"There are a lot of guys who have been around this team for a long time who are desperate to be part of a successful final.
"That’s spurred this team to keep grinding. It means a lot."
Though boasting an All Blacks-laden pack and based in New Zealand's most well-resourced rugby region, the Blues were the country's weakest side as late as 2019.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 proved an unlikely watershed as they knuckled down to finish second behind the Canterbury Crusaders in the domestic Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
They took a backward step in this year's Aotearoa, finishing third with a 4-4 record, and were largely written off as a force in Trans-Tasman.
Yet they recovered quickly to go 5-0 in the tournament, handing out a series of thrashings against Australia's Super Rugby sides to earn the home final.
The Highlanders place in the final is arguably a bigger surprise, having lost coach Tony Brown before the tournament when he headed offshore to resume an assistant role with Japan.
But the South Island scrappers have long been regarded New Zealand's "moneyball" side, achieving a lot with little.
Under deputy Clarke Dermody, the Highlanders also enter the final unbeaten, with co-captain and All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith providing the spark on-field through a brilliant season.
The Highlanders have only one test player in their pack, Japanese flanker Kazuki Himeno, so they will have their hands full against the Blues' forwards as they bid for their first championship since their sole Super Rugby trophy in 2015.
"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,” said co-captain and hooker Ash Dixon.
"They are pretty much twice the size of our team. I’m just looking forward to a good challenge and giving it a crack."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Kim Coghill)