Super Rugby Pacific final preview: Beauden Barrett-Stephen Perofeta combination to take Blues to the title

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 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Super Rugby Pacific reaches its first final, and it is the game everyone wants to see as the Blues take on the Crusaders.

What makes for such an enthralling match-up is that form and history clash on the biggest stage. The Blues have been the best team this season, finishing top of the table and notching a club record 15 wins on the bounce, showcasing their impressive skill-sets across the park.

On the other hand, the Crusaders are all class and have won 10 ‘proper’ Super Rugby titles, three of which have come under coach Scott Robertson and a fair number of current players. Their play-off success rate is outrageous and, despite a rocky start by their standards, you always expect the Christchurch side to be there challenging for the title.

The most significant difference for the Crusaders is that the final is not on their patch for a change and instead will be at a sold-out Eden Park, setting the scene brilliantly.

A New Zealand classic is inevitable, and the biggest players will be required to stand up and deliver.

Last time they met

Last time out, the Blues claimed a thrilling 27-23 win over the Crusaders in their first win in Christchurch in 18 years. A brace from Crusaders full-back Will Jordan and a Sevu Reece try was not enough to contain the rampant Blues, who scored tries through captain Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie and Kurt Ekland. The difference on the day was the Blues’ loose trio with Papalii and number eight Hoskins Sotutu, both making more than 20 tackles. Beauden Barrett had a sublime game and got one over rival Richie Mo’unga in the gripping clash.

What they said

Former Crusader Luke Romano clarified this week that he would not let his decade of history with the Christchurch side get in the way of a title with the Blues.

“I’m competitive and I want to win,” he said. “I can’t get caught up in the emotion because that will distract from the team. If I go out thinking ‘it’s the Crusaders, I want to beat them myself’, that won’t work. I’ve got to do what’s best for the team. The best team will win and I’d hate to be the reason we potentially lose.”

Meanwhile, Blues superstar Barrett called on his teammates to be bold and confident heading into the showpiece game. The playmaker urged teammates to believe in what had worked and to execute the game plan.

“We’ve had a taste of finals footy the last two weeks, dress-rehearsals if you like, and this is no time to go into our shells, It’s time to express ourselves, embrace the challenge and just enjoy it,” Barrett said.

Robertson was grateful that his team’s semi-final against the Chiefs last Friday allowed them an extra day of recovery after the Crusaders racked up a massive tackle count in their 20-7 win.

“The one good thing about playing Friday is we’re banged up, you don’t make 200-odd tackles and not have a good casualty ward, so we’ll rest up, and freshen up, and go again,” he said.

The head coach was sweating on the availability of Argentine powerhouse Pablo Matera as the flank was sent off after being shown two yellow cards. Luckily for the Crusaders, the former Los Pumas captain has been cleared to play in the final.

“It wasn’t a red card. The red card goes to judiciary. Just because he got one yellow for a head-on, and the other one was for obviously not rolling away, we don’t believe mitigates to going to the judiciary,” he added.

Players to watch

The amount of talent on show is genuinely mesmerising, with several All Blacks across both teams.

Blues front-rower Nepo Laulala produced a scrummaging masterclass against the Brumbies in the semi-final, winning several penalties for his side. The All Black will be looking to replicate that form again this weekend as the set-piece is critical in finals rugby in maintaining power and momentum.

Facing him is Crusaders prop George Bower, who has been in superb form, and it makes for an intriguing match-up in the front-row.

There are also players to watch at the back of the scrum for both teams, with robust Blues number eight Hoskins Sotutu in commanding form and showing he has taken his game to another level. The All Black will be a key figure on Saturday with dominant ball carrying, a sharp skill-set and impressive breakdown work.

Packing down at the back of the Crusaders scrum is Cullen Grace, fresh off a brace in the semi-finals and a whopping tackle count of 22, making him a player to keep an eye on. There is no substitute for sheer work rate and the young star has it in abundance. Expect Grace to empty the tank for his side this weekend.

In the backline, a hallmark of this particular Blues team has been the centre pairing of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane. Tuivasa-Sheck made a very high-profile switch from rugby league, where he captained the New Zealand side, and has taken to Super Rugby superbly.

The 29-year-old has all the tools to be successful in union, including an excellent side-step and the spatial awareness to offload more often than not. His discipline and work rate have been widely praised throughout the Blues camp, inspiring other players to raise their standards. The centre has improved with every minute on the field and will hope to continue that momentum when he runs out for the final.

A beneficiary of Tuivasa-Sheck’s transition is Ioane, who could be considered one of, if not the premier, outside centre in the world. His blistering pace, game awareness and ball skills truly sets him apart. The speedster will surely start for the All Blacks and will likely continue to shine at the highest level.

There is also a lovely contrast between the two full-backs who will run out on Saturday. Crusader Will Jordan is prolific in every sense of the word. His vision in broken play, running power and complete skill-set make him a game-breaker and player that would be an asset to any team. No doubt Jordan will be sniffing for a chance to cross the whitewash against the Blues.

On the other side is Stephen Perofeta, who has been a critical cog in the Blues engine this season. His ability to transition into first receiver allows Barrett the freedom to take up dangerous positions. The new All Black call-up also has a sublime tactical kicking game and looks a very complete player. Expect the versatile star to constantly switch with Barrett and look to pick holes in the defensive line. On his own, Perofeta is a weapon, but in tandem with Barrett, the pair have become unplayable at times.

Main head-to-head

Only one battle can trump all the other high-quality match-ups across the park, and that is the duel between playmakers Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga. These two superstars have been slugging it out for years. The latter’s arrival on the international scene forced Barrett to play full-back for the All Blacks to accommodate the Crusader’s genius.

As the season rolled in, there were question marks around the 31-year-old Barrett as he struggled with concussion symptoms, delaying the start of his campaign. However, after recovering from his head injury and then fighting off Covid-19, the All Black centurion returned to the field like a flamethrower, lighting up the field and underlining his class. The Blues team of 2022 has been inspired by Barrett’s vision and ability to execute time and time again.

It has been one of the best seasons to see the superstar run riot and breach defences seemingly at will. With Perofeta taking over the kicking duties, all the fly-half has needed to do is create. With this freedom to express himself, Barrett has seriously put his name in the hat for the best fly-half in the competition and the world, particularly from an attacking standpoint.

The colossal season from Barrett somehow does not overshadow Mo’unga, who has played fewer games but has still been incredibly influential as he always seems to be for the Crusaders. The 28-year-old is a complete fly-half with sound kicking (both tactical and at goal), outrageous vision and the ability to take the ball to the line.

Mo’unga is a player for the occasion, as his five titles in as many years suggest. Big game temperament is a hallmark of the All Black’s playing style. His ability to constantly produce at the highest level on the biggest stage is impressive.

The battle of the best playmakers of this current generation will be one to behold as the two square off, not just for the Super Rugby Pacific trophy but also for the All Blacks 10 jersey against Ireland.

Prediction

The battle up front is always critical. Both sides have venom in their backline, and the team with the better platform will have more of a chance to secure points. The Crusaders need to control the game to stop the Blues from finding their rhythm. However, the Aucklanders have enjoyed far too good a season to fall short at the final hurdle. Barrett and Perofeta will play an instrumental role in the game’s outcome that is likely to be decided by just a few points. It will be heartbreak for the Crusaders at Eden Park. Blues by three points.

Previous results

2022: Blues won 27-23 in Christchurch
2021: Crusaders won 29-6 in Christchurch
2021: Crusaders won 43-27 in Auckland
2020: Crusaders won 26-15 in Christchurch
2020: Crusaders won 25-8 in Auckland
2019: Crusaders won 19-11 in Christchurch
2019: Crusaders won 24-22 in Auckland

The teams

Blues: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 AJ Lam, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Beauden Barrett (c), 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Adrian Choat, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Tom Robinson, 4 Josh Goodhue, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman
Replacements: 16 Soane Vikena, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Dalton Papalii/James Tucker, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Bryce Heem, 23 Zarn Sullivan

Crusaders: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (c), 3 Oli Jager, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 George Bower
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Corey Kellow, 21 Mitch Drummond, 22 Braydon Ennor, 23 George Bridge

Date: Saturday, 18 June
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:05 local (08:05 BST, 07:05 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Stu Curran (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)

READ MORE: The Rugby Championship: Organisers trade home and away fixtures for mini-tour structure

 

The article Super Rugby Pacific final preview: Beauden Barrett-Stephen Perofeta combination to take Blues to the title appeared first on Planetrugby.com.

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