124 Super Rugby matches later, only two teams are left for this Saturday’s final at Suncorp in Brisbane. Their places in the final should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched Super Rugby this season; they have been the two outstanding teams in the tournament.
The Crusaders have thrilled crowds not just across the Southern Hemisphere but also memorably at Twickenham against the Sharks, one match that no one there will forget in a hurry. Meanwhile the Reds have completed the ultimate Cinderella story by making the final from finishing 13th two seasons ago, especially given the fact that they will play it out in front of their loyal home fans who’ve suffered season after season of mediocrity.
Focusing first up on the visitors, the Crusaders are no strangers to this stage. 9 finals, 7 championships in 15 years, the figures speak for themselves. They are the Leicester of the South, and they come into this year’s Championship Final after a 3 year absence with one of their strongest teams in recent years. The established names of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw now line up alongside the fresh young talent of Sean Maitland, Robbie Fruean, the Franks and Whitelock brothers and Matt Todd. Oh, and some guy called Sonny Bill Williams who seems to think an offload is compulsory in every tackle.
In fact it’s this centre partnership between Sonny Bill and Fruean that has been the fulcrum of the Crusaders success this season. A combination of SBW’s strength and offloads and
Fruean’s lines and timing has seen them rack up an impressive amount of tries, and prompting calls for them to both leapfrog Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith into the All Black side. For proof of their deadly combination, look no further than this try here against the Stormers in the semi-final last week.
The Reds though have got some strong attacking options as well though. Few could argue with the statement that Quade Cooper is the best 10 in club rugby right now after his exceptional performance last week against the Blues. He may have missed plenty of kicks at goal, but his open play was out of this world, see here and here for substantial proof. He has been at the heart of Queensland’s Rugby Union revival, along with the emergence of Will Genia, the blooding at international level of the likes of Digby Ioane, the Faingaa twins, James Slipper, the remarkable rise of Beau Robinson, and lastly, and most importantly, the appointment of Ewen McKenzie as head coach. The return of “Link” as he is popularly known to Australian rugby after a stint with Stade Français has certainly been a successful one, which has seen him emerge as the odds on favourite to coach the Wallabies after the end of Robbie Deans tenure.
Onto the game itself, the Crusaders scrum was excellent last week against the Stormers and with James Slipper absent and Greg Holmes filling in, I’d back them to have the edge in this area. This means that the Reds have to dominate the lineout, with inspirational captain James Horwill leading his pack against Brad Thorn and company. In the backs the defensive pair of Ben Tapuai and Anthony Faingaa for the Reds were excellent against the Blues last week but face a much tougher test against SBW and Fruean. In the back three, two relatively inexperienced full-backs in Jono Lance and Tom Marshall will go head to head, whilst there is pace to burn on the wings from Rod ‘Rocket’ Davies and Sean Maitland.
All eyes on: Beau Robinson & Sonny Bill Williams
Robinson’s story is a remarkable one, and yet another big performance in the final on Saturday would guarantee his selection for the World Cup. All season long he’s produced brilliant turnovers and huge hits, making him a fan favourite. Sonny Bill is already one of those, thanks to his all-action style and impressive physique. He needs to underline what has been a superb breakthrough year however
with some silverware, and the final is his first chance to cement his name in the record books.
Head to head: Quade Cooper & Dan Carter
The top two fly-halves in the world have faced each other many times in national colours, but the emotion in this game will be more than any test match. Cooper has come a long way from the boy who possessed great talent to the man who leaves defences in pieces, and his ascension would be complete with a Super Rugby title. Dan Carter has won many of those and that’s what makes him one of the greats. He has spoken in the press how winning the title this year would mean so much more given the way Christchurch has suffered over the last few months. Their duel will be the highlight of what should be an excellent final. Get excited.
Kick-Off: 10:40 (UK Time)
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ)
Prediction: Home advantage, along with the psychological boost of already winning against the Crusaders at Suncorp earlier this season, I’m praying will see the Reds home. Queensland by 4.
by Ben Coles