News: Crusaders reach Super Rugby Pacific final vs Blues

With the results marked down, two semi-finals were played in New Zealand, where determined tackling sees the Crusaders reach the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific final. There, they will travel to Auckland to meet the competition premiers, the Blues.

The Blues defeated the ACT Brumbies 20-19 on a wet evening, surviving a torrid final quarter after two yellow cards gave the visitors a taste of victory. Maintaining their sequence of 15 wins now assures them of a home Grand Final for the first time since 2003. Yet facing them are one of the most well-directed and tenacious professional rugby union franchises anywhere on the globe.

Achieving 16th Super Rugby final for Crusaders franchise shows class. An astonishing 27th consecutive playoff wins, this Christchurch-based team seems unfamiliar with losing, as was seen on Friday night. The side’s resolve and determined tackling were evident in this clash – and in fact, set a competition record; 242 (Stats courtesy of Super Rugby NZ, and that record supplanting another CRUvCHI epic game).

Phenomenal, and summed up simply by captain Scott Barrett, who said “Finals footy is all about defence”. Required to the ‘nth degree against the Chiefs who quite literally ‘threw the kitchen sink at them’. It was a ferocious game, played in atrocious conditions that only highlighted the fact a planned indoor stadium has been in the regional news lately. Council budget blowouts might hurt more (after the pandemic), yet the wind, rain, and even some hail last Friday night only caused the match to be determined by who could persevere in the front-on battle at the ruck and set defensive lines.

Scott Robertson observed on SkySport, “our forwards just went deeper, and deeper.”

In the end, not even a red card to Argentine import Pablo Matera could rock the solid formation of the Crusaders squad. They withstood 40 minutes in the second half where the territorial and possession advantage seemed to mean it might have been only a matter of time for the visitors – yet the scoreline did not change in that time. And the hosts won 20-7 deservedly. They now travel to Auckland with hopes of adding another trophy to their collection.

Crusaders 20 – Tries: Cullen Grace (2); Conversions: Richie Mo’unga (2); Penalties: Mo’unga (2)

Chiefs 7 – Try: Angus Ta’avao; Con: Bryn Gatland

Crusaders reach Super Rugby Pacific final versus Blues

Removed before this match, seasoned veteran Sam Whitelock had to watch from the sideline, yet the Crusaders’ machine continued to plow onward. Up against a Chiefs team who had the record to push the hosts though. Already with an away win over the ‘Saders in Round Four yet that was a long time ago. Not resting on their laurels, the visitors tried several strategies but the takeaways from this encounter will be that an organized defence, can and should win playoff games.

Five takeaways from 2022 Super Rugby final playoffs

Composure is something learned, and who else is better at it than the Crusaders. Always being challenged, their ability to adapt and to often ‘go for the break’ showed on several occasions. Richie Mo’unga played his part in two, with some sniping shifts of body weight and speed giving his side quick offensive ball to work with.

His cut–out pass to Callum Grace for his second try is one area that a cool, composed pivot can provide. Vision and taking every opportunity are his tools. Shown a week earlier too, when his quick thinking and swift offload saw a Sevu Reece downfield kick converted. Even though possession was a lousy 29% in the first half, they still accounted for two tries and 20 points that sees them into another Super Rugby (season) final.

On top of composure, is set-piece and the foundation for a team. Those building blocks go a long way to winning in these tight encounters. The Chiefs have many yet, it is the Crusaders display here that will hold them in a good place next weekend up in Auckland. On occasion, they were flustered. Patience is a virtue of playing additional, big playoff matches, so the ‘muscle memory’ for many Crusaders experienced players helped them to see off another New Zealand side in a classic playoff tussle.

Note the influence of 100 matches coached by Scott Robertson also shows on the field. As a head coach, Robertson elevates his players through his personality and with the men he has around him [Ronan O’Gara a former assistant]. His record is as impressive, as it is consistent. Now 100 games coached alongside Jase Ryan, their winning ratio is an amazing 85/100.

Up in Auckland, the Blues’ resolute defence was also on show. Half the number of tackles made though, so the effort from that side – especially in the final minutes being down to 14 men after the side’s second yellow card – showed how they maintained composure. The ACT Brumbies crossed for two tries to re-enter the contest, but for no reward. A terrific charge down of a last gasp attempted drop goal could be the defining moment for the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific final hosts. Had that kick gone over (like in prior weeks for the Blues), this story will have been about Australian bragging rights.

Big moments count in winning matches, and in defending a lead. On attack, the Blues ended the season with 472 points scored. Equal on 64 tries with the Crusaders, which shows how even they both are, yet the offensive nature of the Blues has been prevalent all season. They are an aggressive team, quick to react on counter-attack, with Stephen Perofeta now maturing into a class act. The below example shows the ability to offload, recycle possession and finished off by a spinning Hoskins Sotutu to dot down near the posts.

Summing up the preface of composure, one moment that summed up the 2022 model Blues. There was a brilliant example of defence from Beauden Barrett. Those fundamentals help to embellish his freakish talent to accelerate away from opposition, and set up or strike himself. Head coach Leon MacDonald told media later; “There were a lot of big tackles and desperation plays. I thought we had good control of the game, but we just weren’t able to continue in the second half which is frustrating, but it’s also finals footy against a very good rugby team who chucked everything at us.

“In finals rugby, one point is enough, that’s what we needed to get through to the final, and we took one point.”

BLUES 20 – Tries: Sotutu, Telea; Conversions: Perofeta (2); Penalties: Perofeta (2)

BRUMBIES 19 – Tries: Simone, L Lonergan (2); Cons: Lolesio (2)

As the two brothers look to turn their attention to a Grand Final, you know that a good bit of banter and brotherly love will surely be shown from the two men.

Barrett brothers on both sides of Super Rugby Pacific final

Knowing your opposition is one thing, when it is family, that’s another thing entirely. You can see it clearly between leaders, Scott Barrett (Crusaders), and Beauden Barrett (Blues). Elevated into the captain’s positions, imagine the dining room chat at the Barrett homestead this week. No allegiances of course; only to their Taranaki province, you might say.

The midweek photo opportunity should also be a family affair. Both Barrett’s should be named in the All Blacks wider training squad, so a slight distraction on Monday yet the task is a little different when older brother Beaudy has one hand on the trophy, with Scott holding the other. Two exceptional men, two fine players too who will want to use their years of rugby knowledge to the advantage of their own two teams.

Traveling up to the host city, the Crusaders will know that they need to rest and recover from the heavy work put in this weekend. How the bruised bodies hold up is important. If David Havili has a broken cheekbone (as seemed obvious), his place will need to be filled by Brayden Ennor. And the fact that Matera was red-carded, brings up the possibility that they may be to bring in a new number eight. Corey Kellow could slip into openside, with Tom Christie shifting out a place. Remember, the able Ethan Blackadder was just diagnosed with a season-ending shoulder injury, so injuries may affect the Crusaders more than the Blues.

Does that mean any change in the favoritism for the Super Rugby Pacific Final? It will be a factor, no doubt. Fatigue after a long season; by comparison to what Southern Hemisphere competitions have become accustomed to. Bye rounds were used, although some replayed matches against the Moana Pasifika team (due to Covid interruption) also increased the match load. Whichever sides conditioning, recovery and player management handles this week best, adds to who will run out next Saturday as a potential Champion.

On one hand, the Crusaders know how to perform. It is nothing new to the majority. Bryn Hall, a signing back in 2017 [when Robertson began coaching] is more experienced in playoff rugby than the entire Auckland team combined. Include Mo’unga, Reece, Goodhue, Codie Taylor, and a fit Sam Whitelock, and Scott Barrett will have a force of men around him that can sustain the host’s arsenal.

On the other hand, the form team of 2022 has been the Blues. One loss all year, they are now ‘streaking ahead’ in terms of re-emerging as a force in Championship contention. Home town heroes, the Eden Park faithful should bring upwards of 40,000 to Eden Park next weekend. That support is worth five points. It will help the likes of Rieko Ioane and his big brother to be emboldened. For Caleb Clarke to emulate his father, as will Sotutu. It will push Findlay Christie to make snap decisions that allow the backline to have front-foot-ball. Then a confident Beauden Barrett can work his magic. he might add a second Super Rugby title to the one he earned in 2016 with the Hurricanes.

Saturday, June 18 is shaping up as a massive match in all the player’s memories. The year that Super Rugby returned as a complete trans-Tasman competition. With two fresh franchises introduced, it has been a successful return. And while the familiar kiwi teams in the final may have shut out any Aussie participation, they still should feel that 2022 was a return to competition, and well worth celebrating.

GRAND FINAL Blues v Crusaders – Saturday, June 18. Eden Park, Auckland

 

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