After running a first-past-the-post system in Super Rugby Aotearoa's maiden season, New Zealand Rugby this year opted to install a final. And it's a good thing they did, too, or the final couple of weeks of the regular season would have been largely irrelevant; as it was, only Round 10 proved to be the case.
The Crusaders had already easily locked up hosting rights for the final, their Round 9 win over the Blues also confirming the Chiefs would be their opponents in Christchurch this weekend. It is an amazing turnaround from the Waikato outfit, who last year finished at the bottom of the table with an ugly 0-8 record.
Clayton McMillan took charge of the Chiefs this season with Warren Gatland having returned to the northern hemisphere to begin British & Irish Lions preparations, for which he will on Thursday unveil his touring squad. McMillan dropped his first two games as coach, and then saw Sam Cane ruled out for the season, but at last something clicked for the Chiefs as they suddenly started to win the close games they had dropped throughout 2020. Damian McKenzie played the hero on multiple occasions with either last-gasp penalties or tries helping to get the Chiefs over the line.
One such occasion came in Round 8 when McKenzie nailed a 78th minute penalty to sink the Crusaders, which was the defending champions' second loss in three weeks. For a moment, there were suggestions the previously indefatigable wheels might just be falling off the Crusaders wagon. But they soon put paid to that with a resounding victory over the Blues, when a free-running Will Jordan inspired their best performance for a month.
While they have been hit by injuries to key All Blacks Joe Moody and Jack Goodhue across the season, the Crusaders still retain an army of Test stars and this week will be no different. Coach Scott Robertson has named the same starting side that defeated the Blues and actually improved the state of his bench with Braydon Ennor at last fit to return from an ACL injury suffered late in last year's tournament.
Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Leicester Fainga'anuku, David Havili, George Bridge, Richie Mo'unga, Mitchell Drummond; Cullen Grace, Sione Havili Talitui, Ethan Blackadder, Samuel Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Michael Alaalatoa, Codie Taylor, George Bower.
Brodie McAlister, Tamaita Williams, Olive Jager, Mitchell Dunshea, Tom Sanders, Bryn Hall, Dallas McLeod, Braydon Ennor.
After resting a swag of their frontline stars for last week's game against the Blues, the Chiefs are back to their strongest possible line-up. Bryn Gatland has taken the No. 10 jersey, as expected, with Damian McKenzie sure to drift into first receiver from fullback at times throughout the contest. The Chiefs have an outstanding back-row with Luke Jacobson returning from concussion to start at No. 8, with Lachlan Boshier at openside and Pita Gus Sowakula handed the No. 6 jersey. The trio will need to be at its very best if the Chiefs are to hang with the Crusaders deep into the second half.
Damian McKenzie, Jonah Lowe, Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Bryn Gatland, Brad Weber; Luke Jacobson, Lachland Boshier, Pita Gus Sowakula, Mitchell Brown, Tupou Vaa'i, Angus Ta'avao, Samisoni Taukeiaho, Aidan Ross.
Bradley Slater, Ollie Norris, Sione Mafileo, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Zane Kapeli, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Rameka Pihipi, Chase Tiatia.
Key battle: Will Jordan vs. Damian McKenzie
Such has been their impact on their respective teams in recent times, it's hard to go past the positional battle that pits Will Jordan and Damian McKenzie against each other.
While it's unlikely they will meet in or around the tackle contest and there will often be vast spaces between them, their ability to influence their team's attack, either by joining the line or creating the break that leads to a try, will prove pivotal in this contest.
The big question is whether McKenzie will get the same platform to work from that Jordan will likely enjoy; the Chiefs custodian is good enough to negotiate heavy traffic and still have an effect, but if the Crusaders enjoy front-foot ball throughout then Jordan will truly run amok.
Crusaders $1.26 [-10.5 $1.90]; Chiefs $3.90 [+10.5 $1.90]
The Chiefs match up reasonably well against the Crusaders and at set-piece, where they actually boast a better scrum percentage than the defending champions. But the big concern is whether they have got the attacking firepower to hang with the Crusaders, at home, right through to the final whistle. The Crusaders average 3.8 tries a game compared with the Chiefs' 2.3 -- the worst in Super Rugby Aotearoa -- and while teams will go to the posts more often in a decider, you get the feeling the Crusaders will really put the squeeze on through scoreboard pressure, and then pull away from the Chiefs in the second half. If the likes of Luke Jacobson and Lachlan Boshier can thwart the Crusaders' flow of possession and continuity, then the result might not be so clear cut. Still, you can't really contemplate any other eventuality besides a Crusaders win. Crusaders by 12.