The Super Rugby gods couldn't have written a better script as the Chiefs and Crusaders stake their claims for a place in the 2012 final.
And then there were four! The Super Rugby gods couldn't have written a better script as the Chiefs and Crusaders stake their claims for a place in the 2012 Super Rugby final.
Hamilton is the place to be when two of the Kiwi outfits who have set the tournament alight go head to head for a third time this season in what should be another captivating contest.
The Crusaders' epic Round 17 win squared the ledger between the two sides after the Chiefs drew first blood earlier on in the competition, but this is the one that counts the most.
Another win for the visitors will see them contest their second successive final, where they will bid for an incomprehensible eighth Super Rugby title.
To get there, Todd Blackadder's troops will have to overcome a classy Chiefs unit who have never been crowned champions (their only final was in 2009) but have certainly showed their title credentials after finishing top of the NZ conference.
After eight seasons of mostly flattering to deceive, the Chiefs have finally delivered consistent performances – including nine consecutive wins at one stage of the tournament – that the franchise have never quite been able to produce before Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith came along.
They've led the way for the majority of the season, but missed a beat or two at the business end after suffering back-to-back losses which led to them surrendering their number one spot on the overall log to the Stormers.
Granted, both were games the Chiefs should have won and will know better than anyone they can ill-afford to let any opportunities slip come kick-off on Friday when they face a real test of their mettle against the highly fancied Crusaders who are peaking at the right time.
Whilst home advantage didn't quite prove to be that advantageous when the Chiefs hosted the Crusaders last time out, they do come into this match refreshed after taking a breather last weekend while their opponents were running with the Bulls.
But Rennie and co. wouldn't have liked what they saw on TV as the clinical Crusaders dismantled the South Africans in Christchurch without barely breaking a sweat. Indeed, their fans wil be hoping for more of the same from key players Dan Carter and Richie McCaw – both of whome were sensational – to get the job done.
The Chiefs still had to wait on the result between the Reds and Sharks to determine where the Crusaders would be required to travel for their semi. And it's fair to say Queensland are now the Crusaders' favourite team as they avoided a long trip to South Africa and certainly won't be overawed about the journey north.
This is the first time these two sides have met in a semi-final and whilst the Crusaders have proved they're more than capable of winning in Cowbell Country (they've won the last three and seven of the past eight games against the Chiefs in Waikato), their reputation in finals rugby against Kiwi opposition also spells bad news for the Chiefs.
The seven-time champs have won eight of the nine play-offs against their countrymen – the only loss coming against the Blues in the 2003 final.
But ultimately there's only one set of stats that count at the end: the scoreline. And the Chiefs will have the belief they can match anything the Crusaders throw at them – especially in the backs with that dangerous 10-12 combo of theirs, while out wide it's pretty even stevens.
However the Chiefs forwards were taught a harsh lesson last time out by the Crusaders – especially at line-out time – and it's no surprise the coaching staff have been working overtime to right the wrongs. Certainly the Chiefs' heavies haven't been found wanting this season, but in the Crusaders they face a battle-hardened, brutal and intelligent unit.
In the back-row, Crusaders number eight Kieran Read once again sits out but McCaw has proved to be an able replacement since shifting from the side of the scrum to the back while Matt Todd and George Whitelock have been the unsung heroes on the flanks. With Sam Cane riding pine for this knock-out clash, there will be added pressure on Liam Messam to be the Chiefs primary source of momentum in the their back row.
Up front, it's going to be a battle royale with crowd favourite Sona Taumalolo and the impressive Ben Tameifuna locking horns with Ben Franks and Wyatt Crockett – both powerful scrummagers who make an already powerful Crusaders scrum even more impressive.
On paper, it's hard to pick a winner. But regardless of the final scoreline, we're in for a cracking semi-final.
Ones to watch:
For Chiefs: Dave Rennie has taken a gamble by shifting gifted full-back Andrew Horrell back to the midfield for this winner-takes-all clash, in what will be only his second game ever at centre. Significantly, Horrell will be part of the same backline which also started against the Crusaders in their last regular season clash on July 6. Although he did not really put a foot wrong in that match, it's at number 15 where Horrell is best utilised as he's a better player in space and his speed is also an asset in that wider channel. He's in good company with Sonny Bill Williams on his inside, and Horrell will no doubt want to repay Rennie's faith with a solid outing in the biggest game of his career.
For Crusaders: When Brad Thorne departed New Zealand shores last season, the veteran lock left mighty big boots to fill. But Luke Romano, who luckily wears custom-made size 17 boots, has slotted in the Crusaders second row with aplomb. He will be targeted following his impressive display in Hamilton a few weeks ago that included some heavy hits and an important try. Romano was also the player responsible for disrupting the Chiefs' line-out and his team-mates will be hoping for more of the same.
Head to head: Aaron Cruden v Dan Carter. It's no longer master versus the apprentice as Carter and his All Blacks understudy attempt to weave their magic when the two world-class pivots face-off on Friday. Cruden has proved to be an indispensable asset to the Chiefs since making the move from the Hurricanes. His confidence is infectious, and has made a clear difference to the Chiefs' back-line that lacked a bit of direction in 2011. Carter, as always, will be relied upon to steer the Crusaders ship with ball in hand and from the tee where he punished the Bulls a week ago with a near-flawless goal-kicking display.
2012: Crusaders won 28-21, Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 24-19, Napier
2011: Crusaders won 25-19, Napier
2011: Crusaders won 34-16, Tauranga
2010: Crusaders won 26-19, Hamilton
Prediction: Expect unrelenting urgency and intensity from both sides, but the team that's able to soak up the pressure best will ultimately claim the spoils.Crusaders by five!
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams,