After five weeks of cross-border play, we have ourselves an all-New Zealand Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final that is perhaps only shocking because of the combatants it involves -- or at least those who missed out.
We are of course referring to the Crusaders who lived to regret a last-gasp try they conceded to the Force in Round 4 of the tournament, the five-pointer denying Scott Robertson's side a bonus point that would have left them with less of a mountain to climb against the Rebels a week later.
But you can't begrudge the Blues or the Highlanders their spots in the final, the southerners in particular having earned their place the hard way with a bonus-point, for-and-against-boosting, win over the Brumbies in Round 5. The Blues may have had the friendliest draw of the Kiwi sides, but they appear to have found the consistency that had alluded them in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
And so to Saturday night's clash at Eden Park. The Blues have the firepower and Test quality that demands favouritism but this Highlanders team is a lot like the one that lifted the Super Rugby trophy in 2015. They have just one All Black in their line-up in Aaron Smith, but otherwise boast a team of hard-working "misfits" who love nothing more than proving the critics wrong.
The Blues' title drought is far longer, stretching back to 2003 when the original Super Rugby magician Carlos Spencer was confusing opposition defences with his ever-expanding bag of tricks, and Doug Howlett, Joe Rococoko and Rupeni Caucaunibuca formed one of the most dangerous back threes the game has ever seen.
There is good and bad news for the Blues this week with fly-half Otere Black passed fit to play, but back-rower Tom Robinson and prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi both ruled out. Those omissions thankfully come in positions where the Blues have great depth with Akira Ioane merely dropped into the back-row in place of Robinson. Meanwhile up front, Leon MacDonald's team still boast All Blacks props in the starting side in Alex Hodgman and Nepo Laulala, and then Karl Tu'inukuafe ready to come off the bench.
Zarn Sullivan, Bryce Heem, Rieko Ioane, TJ Faiane, Mark Telea, Otere Black, Finlay Christie; Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Patrick Tuipulotu, Nepo Laulala, Kurt Eklund, Alex Hodgman. Replacements: Ray Niuia, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Marcel Renata, Josh Goodhue, Blake Gibson, Jonathan Ruru, Harry Plummer, AJ Lam.
The Highlanders have named an unchanged line-up from the one that defeated the Brumbies last week, with injury concerns Jona Nareki and Pari Pari Parkinson both deemed fit to play. It will be a particularly special occasion for Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon, with the hooker to play his 100th game as a Highlander.
Josh Ioane, Patelesio Tomkinson, Michael Collins, Scott Gregory, Jona Nareki, Mitch Hunt, Aaron Smith; Kazuki Himeno, Billy Harmon, Hugh Renton, Bryn Evans, Pari Pari Parkinson, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon, Ethan De Groot. Replacements: Liam Coltman, Ayden Johnstone, Josh Hohneck, Josh Dickson, James Lentjes, Kayne Hammington, Sam Gilbert, Teariki Ben-Nicholas.
Key positional battle: Finlay Christie vs. Aaron Smith
Two of the most dynamic No. 9s in the game, Finlay Christie and Aaron Smith are at the heart of what each of their teams does well.
Smith has long been the barometer of the Highlanders' success, but that has only increased this season with so much of their play running off the All Blacks ace. Smith's lightning pass either finds forwards hard and flat at the line, or the length of his delivery also gives the Highlanders the opportunity to play in behind and out wide, bringing the likes of the in-form Jona Nareki into the game
Christie, meanwhile, is in career-best form, his darts in and around the ruck, are the perfect foil for the Blues' enormous pack; the scrum-half able to capitalise on a retreating defensive line once his forwards have made inroads. Christie is also one of the best support players in Super Rugby, running the kind of lines that often see him pop up in the final moments when tries are scored.
Blues $1.38, -7.5 $1.92; Highlanders $3, +7.5 $1.85
A big crowd will be on hand at Eden Park with Blues fans having been starved of success for so long. This team does not boast the brilliant attacking flare of the Spencer-led '03 outfit, but they are not exactly short on game-breakers either and probably boast a better pack. If the Blues get the same go-forward they have enjoyed throughout the tournament, then they will be very tough to beat at home. But they are also prone to the odd flat patch and can be guilty of the simplest of mistakes, which is exactly what the Highlanders thrive on.
The southerners have made a habit of being the underdogs and relish that tag, but the sum of their individual parts makes one very complete rugby team. They will be prepared to hang in the contest and take points when on offer, and if the game is alive in the closing minutes they have the tactical nous in Aaron Smith and Mitch Hunt to close it out. The two teams split their Aotearoa fixtures one apiece and while the Blues were triumphant at home, delivering in a final when a trophy is on the line is a different matter. Highlanders by 2.