The Chiefs will attempt to become the fourth side in the history of Super Rugby to claim back-to-back titles in Saturday's final in Hamilton.
The Chiefs will attempt to become the fourth side in the history of Super Rugby to claim back-to-back titles in Saturday's final against the Brumbies in Hamilton.
It's worth noting that the Chiefs and Brumbies have not played each other this year. In fact, three of this year's five knock-out games have been between teams that had not faced off in 2013… further proof that the draw is a significant factor in deciding who makes the play-offs – far more so than it should be.
Nor did the defending champs play the Bulls this year, meaning New Zealand's top side didn't clash with either winner of the other conferences. Meanwhile, the Brumbies didn't tackle the Cheetahs in the league rounds, which went a long way to helping them finish two points clear of the Reds… who lost in Bloemfontein.
Don't get me wrong, by no means can we blame the finalists for their respective draws. Would playing those teams have made a difference? We'll never know – which is the point. Once again we're faced with an illustration of the uneven playing field that leaves a dent in the sporting integrity of what is otherwise the most entertaining competition in world rugby.
Back to the game at hand, and despite the mini-rant above, looking back at the games the Chiefs DID play, it would be hard to argue that they don't deserve their spot in the final. The defending champs scored more points (458) and tries (50) than any other side in the regular season, despite averaging the least amount of average time in possession (just 13mins 53secs).
Considering those stats, in hindsight it was probably a little overzealous for many pundits to have labelled Dave Rennie's team as the underdogs for last week's semi-final against the Crusaders. Victory may have only come by a single point, but it was yet another big performance. On the strength of that effort, the home side must be considered the overwhelming favourites for this weekend, especially when one considers that the Brumbies have had to cross the Indian Ocean twice in the space of ten days.
If you're in any doubt as to how much oomph that kind of travelling takes out of a rugby player's legs, just ask the members of the exhausted Sharks side that got a thrashing at Waikato Stadium exactly one year ago.
Victory at 'Fortress Loftus' last week notwithstanding, the Brumbies have not quite blazed a trail towards the final in the same manner as their hosts. While the Chiefs have topped the stats for line breaks, points and tries, Jake White's team have been doing, well, what Jake White teams do: applying pressure, then adding some more pressure, and cashing in when points are on offer. They top the charts in penalties kicked.
Not that you can argue with their results – and what else matters, really? In just two years, the South African coach has transformed a team that finished 13th in 2011 into finalists on Saturday.
White's territorial approach can be very effective when executed correctly, but if there is one team you do not want to give possession away to cheaply, it's the Chiefs, who have become masters of the counter-attack.
The visitors will, as usual, look to kick into the corners and force the Chiefs to play in their own half. With the teams rather evenly matched up in most departments, the keys to the victory could lie in two areas:
First, Jesse Mogg, Christian Lealiifano, Matt Toomua and Nic White must kick wisely and accurately out of hand. Aimless kicks that give the Chiefs time and space to counter will be punished.
Second, if and when the Brumbies find touch, the Chiefs – who have statistically the worst line-out in the competition – must consistently find their jumpers or face the prospect of being pinned back with the likes of Henry Speight looking to strike. Ben Mowen has taken more line-out throws than any other man in the competition – his skills in the air will pose a major threat.
Yet, whichever way you looked at it, the cards still seem stacked against the Brumbies.If they win on Saturday, they would become the first foreign team to win a play-off match in New Zealand and the first side in 13 years to win the final outside of their own country.
By playing the Chiefs on Saturday, they will also become the first side to face every other team in the competition in a single season since the conference system was introduced in 2011. So there's no way anyone could say that they wouldn't be worthy champions. If they win…
2012: Chiefs won 29-22 in Hamilton
2011: Brumbies 28-20 in Canberra
2010: Brumbies 30-23 in Canberra
2009: Chiefs won 10-7 in Hamilton
2008: Chiefs won 42-28 in Canberra
2007: Brumbies 21-15 in Hamilton
2006: Brumbies 28-26 in Canberra
2005: Draw 28-28 in Canberra
2004: Brumbies 32-17 in Canberra
2004: Brumbies 15-12 in Hamilton
Prediction: After last week's win in Pretoria it seems dangerous to write the Brumbies off, but the travel factor alone should swing the result in the home side's favour. Chiefs by ten points.
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Lelia Masaga/Robbie Robinson, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Andrew Horrell, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Matt Vant Leven, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Bundee Aki, 22 Robbie Robinson/Patrick Osborne.
Brumbies:15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 George Smith, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Fotu Auelua, 19 Colby Faingaa, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Andrew Smith, 22 Joe Tomane.
Date: Saturday, August 3
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT/09.35 SAST/17.35 AEST)
Weather: 17Â°C. Chance of Rain
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock; Garrat Williamson
TMO: Vinny Munro
By Ross Hastie