Rugby-Blues out to finally finish the job, Chiefs prepare for war

  • Rugby
  • Thursday, 20 Jun 2024

(Reuters) - The Auckland Blues will finally bring an end to their long journey back to the top of Super Rugby if they can see off the Waikato Chiefs at Eden Park on Saturday to clinch a first fully-fledged title since 2003.

With the likes of Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brooke and Michael Jones on board, the Blues dominated the early years of southern hemisphere professional rugby and won the first two Super Rugby titles in 1996-7.

For nearly two decades after their third title in 2003, however, they were almost a case study in how resources -- both in talent and finances -- were no guarantee of success.

There was an uptick around the start of the COVID pandemic and although they triumphed in a Trans-Tasman competition in 2021, they have come up just short in the first two seasons of Super Rugby Pacific.

They won 15 straight matches from the start of the 2022 season only to lose the final to the Canterbury Crusaders, who also ended their campaign in the semi-finals last year.

The Crusaders rallied in their poorest campaign in two decades to hand the Blues one of only two defeats this season but the Aucklanders have been in relentless form since.

A 31-17 victory over the Chiefs was followed by emphatic playoff wins over Fijian Drua and ACT Brumbies but just making the final was never going to be enough.

"There's a deep desire in this group to go the whole way," coach Vern Cotter said this week.

"To do that we need to be clear in our thinking, disciplined and not let the occasion get the better of us."

The Chiefs, back-to-back champions in 2012-13, know they are up against it on Saturday, not least because the Blues have lost only four of their last 36 matches at Eden Park, all to the Crusaders.

The Hamilton-based side have played spoilers on a couple of occasions this year, however, denying the Blues top seeding with a late try three weeks ago and ending the title hopes of the Hurricanes in Wellington last Saturday.


Coach Clayton McMillan is expecting few surprises from the Blues, who have rolled into the final on the back of brutal forward power and an All Blacks-laden backline.

"I can't see them wavering from their willingness to kick long, pressure the ball and go to war through the middle of the park," he said.

"So we at least know what's coming our way."

The Chiefs executed a perfect game plan to beat the Hurricanes last week but might suffer in the forward exchanges on Saturday after the loss of All Blacks hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho to an Achilles injury.

It is to the electric backline run by flyhalf Damian McKenzie that the Chiefs will be looking for game-changing inspiration, however, and there is good news on that front with the return to fullback of Shaun Stevenson.

The Blues will have skipper Patrick Tuipulotu for the clash despite the totemic lock having suffered what was thought to be a season-ending knee injury last week.

His desire to be on the field on Saturday is perhaps a reflection of the determination of the Blues squad to finally clinch the ultimate prize in provincial rugby.

"The greatest thing I could achieve in rugby is winning a title for my city," his team mate Rieko Ioane told the New Zealand Herald this week.

"Even with the World Cup ... I'd still put a Super Rugby title right up there. It means everything."

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)

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