WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — From the middle of the season in Super Rugby Pacific it seemed the Auckland-based Blues and Christchurch-based Crusaders were on course to meet in the final.
The Blues were building a club-record winning streak — now 14 games — and the Crusaders, after early setbacks, were looking more like the team that has won 12 Super Rugby titles.
Both teams will host semifinals this weekend: the Crusaders will face the Hamilton-based Chiefs on Friday and the Blues will meet the ACT Brumbies on Saturday.
They earn home advantage after finishing first and second at the end of the regular season and progressing as the top-ranked winners of the quarterfinals. That seems to confer favoritism on both teams.
But the Chiefs and Brumbies both are expressing confidence ahead of their matches. The Chiefs already have beaten the Crusaders in Christchurch this season and the Brumbies led the Blues after 80 minutes in their regular season meeting, losing to a dropped goal after the fulltime siren.
Both teams have a sense of what it will take to win semifinals that probably will be close.
The Brumbies, who are strengthened by the return of Wallabies backrower Rob Valetini but have lost center Len Ikitau to suspension, need to defend well against the Blues whose strength is their star-studded backline.
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett is the key to that backline and the Brumbies likely will attempt to restrict his attacking influence.
“If (Barrett) is a nine out of 10 on Saturday we’re not winning,” Brumbies coach Dan McKellar said. “He’s got to be very bland, very beige.
“I think the blueprint was there two weeks ago (in Canberra). We felt we should have beaten the Blues two weeks ago and we’re going over there to beat them."
The Brumbies are the only Australian franchise to the reach the last four.
“It doesn’t interest us to know we were the best-performing Australian team," McKellar said, "we want to be the best team in the comp.”
The Blues have made some minor changes to their lineup. Nepo Laulala comes off the bench to join All Blacks teammate Ofa Tu’ungafasi in propping the scrum. Winger Caleb Clark is unavailable with a hamstring strain and A.J. Lam will start on the left wing with Mark Telea on the right. Telea will play an important role for his ability to contest the ball in the air.
“This is what we have worked so hard for all year both as individuals and a team,” Blues head coach Leon MacDonald said. “This is the occasion that you want to play in — at our home, in front of our fans and family, against a worthy foe for the chance to play in the final.
“That said, it is still a simple game of rugby and we must do those simple things well: take care of our set-phase, be combative at the breakdown and earn the right to unleash our backs."
MacDonald said discipline will be the key, keeping penalties to a minimum.
“We cannot give them a free ride down the ground," he said, "and, likewise, we will be putting pressure on them not to step over the mark.”
All Blacks captain Sam Cane will start on the bench for the Chiefs on Friday, returning from a knee injury. Josh Ioane will start at fullback ahead of Emoni Narawa.
The Crusaders are unbeaten in 26 playoffs matches at home but the Chiefs take hope from their win in the fourth round of the regular season.
“It shows that they’re beatable down there,” coach Clayton McMillan said. “But that was a long time ago, or it feels like a long time ago.
“Both teams will have improved their games between then and now and once you get to finals footy it’s what you produce on the day."
Saturday’s match will be the 100th in the tenure of Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson, who has a record of 83 wins, 12 losses and four draws.
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