(Reuters) - One of the great rivalries in New Zealand rugby will be joined with renewed vigour on Sunday when the Auckland Blues host the Canterbury Crusaders in a top-of-the-table Super Rugby Aotearoa clash at Eden Park.
Encounters between the powerhouses of the country's two main islands were highlights of the early days of professional rugby but the fixture lost its lustre as the Blues struggled and the Crusaders thrived.
The Blues have been revived after a decade in the doldrums, however, and Leon MacDonald's side are viewed by many as the only team that can prevent the south islanders from taking a fifth successive Super Rugby title.
"I'm glad to see the Blues back harnessing all the talent that comes from that region and being a real force again," former Crusaders and All Blacks playmaker Andrew Mehrtens told Australia's Channel Nine this week.
"I really enjoy watching them, I think they're the most potent of the New Zealand teams."
The Blues, featuring the likes of Carlos Spencer, Michael Jones and the Brooke brothers, were dominant in the early days of Super Rugby and won the first two titles in 1996 and 1997, adding a third when they beat the Crusaders in the 2003 final.
The Crusaders, with Mehrterns at flyhalf, claimed their first title in 1998 with a victory over the Blues and have since added 10 more, including the inaugural Super Rugby Aotearoa championship last year.
Based in New Zealand's largest city, the Blues have never lacked talent but it took the arrival of former Crusaders back MacDonald as coach in 2019 to turn the team into a cohesive unit.
The Blues, who go into Sunday's match on a five-game unbeaten run at Eden Park, have possibly the only pack in the competition that can go toe-to-toe with the powerful Crusaders' forwards.
It is behind the scrum, however, that the Blues have really stepped up under MacDonald with explosive talents such as Rieko Ioane and Caleb Clarke wreaking havoc in their first two matches of the season.
"The Crusaders are the team that all others measure their progress against, so this is that opportunity for us," MacDonald said on Friday ahead of his team's bid to snap a 12-match losing streak against the Crusaders going back to 2014.
"The boys are excited – we always are especially when we can host the Crusaders here at Eden Park which is developing as our fortress. We are looking forward to another great game in front of a big crowd of our fans."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)