Blues v Chiefs preview: ‘Enticing’ All Black battles to decide gripping Super Rugby Pacific Final

David Skippers
SRP Final preview image 2024.jpg

Hoskins Sotutu of the Blues and Wallace Sititi of the Chiefs will be competing for the Super Rugby Pacific trophy.

And then there were two. After four months of enthralling action and with 90 matches already completed, the Blues and Chiefs are set to face off in the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific final in Auckland on Saturday.

This year’s tournament is set to reach its climax at the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby, Eden Park, which is also the Land of the Long White Cloud’s largest and most iconic stadium.

With Eden Park sold out, the Blues will be highly motivated to continue where they left off against the Brumbies in their semi-final last weekend. On that occasion, Vern Cotter‘s troops held the upper-hand throughout and were deserved winners in the end.

What made that victory significant is that the Blues maintained their unbeaten record at Eden Park for the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific campaign.

The men from Auckland have played 10 matches on their home patch and have been victorious in all of those which means they will be heading into Saturday’s showdown in a confident mood.

However, despite that confidence there will be some nerves in the Blues camp as they haven’t won a full Super Rugby title since 2003.

The men from Auckland were crowned Super Rugby Trans-Tasman winners in 2021 but that was a shortened version of the competition which was contested between the New Zealand and Australian franchises during the Covid-19 period.

It is a similar story for the Chiefs, who are yet to win a Super Rugby title since they claimed back-to-back tournament wins under the guidance of former head coach Dave Rennie in 2012 and 2013.

Despite that record, the Chiefs are a team on a mission, as they are the first side to qualify for the final after finishing outside the top three positions at the end of the league phase of the competition since 2015.

They are a side who have plenty of attacking threats throughout their ranks but so do the Blues which means we are set for an entertaining encounter on Saturday.

Where the game will be won

It’s become a cliche in the game to mention the forward battle and how important it is in the bigger scheme of things, but that aspect will be huge at Eden Park. The Blues’ semi-final victory over the Brumbies was largely due to a dominant performance from their pack, who outmuscled their opponents with a clinical showing in the forward exchanges. The men from Auckland will be hoping to replicate that effort this weekend, but the Chiefs are no slouches in that department, and throughout this season, their forwards have set a solid platform for their backs, with particularly star playmaker Damian McKenzie thriving on receiving good front foot ball from his pack. Both teams will be determined to gain the ascendancy in the battle up front and whoever comes out on top, should also finish on the winning side.

Last time they met

What they said

Blues head coach Cotter highlighted what his team have to do if they want to be victorious in their backyard on Saturday.

“There’s a deep desire in this group to go the whole way, but to do that, we need to be clear in our thinking, disciplined and not let the occasion get the better of us,” said Cotter.

“The Chiefs will be coming to spoil the party, we’ve got a sold out Eden Park that we hope will be awash in blue, this will be a great occasion and I can feel the excitement building in the group.”

Meanwhile, Chiefs boss Clayton McMillan said although his troops are relishing the opportunity of playing in the final again, they are expecting a tough challenge from their hosts.

“The team are embracing finals week and look forward to what will be a massive occasion for rugby,” he said. “The Blues have impressed with how they have gone about their work, establishing a harder edge under Vern whilst maintaining their ability to hurt you through their explosive backs.

Blues boosted as Patrick Tuipulotu makes miraculous return for Super Rugby Pacific final

“I can’t see them wavering from their willingness to kick long, pressure the ball and go to war through the middle of the park, so we at least know what’s coming our way.”

Players to watch

There was huge concern in New Zealand when Blues skipper Patrick Tuipulotu injured his knee in their quarter-final win over the Fijian Drua earlier this month, which initially ended his participation in Super Rugby Pacific and put his availability for next month’s All Blacks Tests against England in doubt. However, he has made a miraculous recovery after missing the semi-final win over the Brumbies and will lead his team out in the final. Tuipulotu will have to hit the ground running this weekend as his leadership, lineout prowess, attacking and ball carrying ability will all be in the spotlight throughout the final.

Another player who will be crucial to the Blues’ cause is star winger Mark Tele’a, who has the ability to change the course of a match with a moment of magic. The 2023 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year has been in superb form for the Blues in 2024 and is one of the best attackers in the competition as he is amongst the leading players for clean breaks, tries scored, metres gained, carries made and defenders beaten.

Meanwhile, Blues scrum-half Finlay Christie missed a large chunk of the season due to a persistent groin injury but returned to action via the bench in their win over the Chiefs in the final round of the regular season. Since then, the All Black has started in the wins over the Drua and Brumbies in the quarter and semi-final clashes and impressed with his service to his outside backs in both those games. He will be determined to continue in that vein on Saturday.

For the Chiefs, all eyes will be on their little magician, Damian McKenzie, who is yet to have an off day for the men from Hamilton in 2024. McKenzie has lit up the competition with his excellence on attack and brilliant goal-kicking, and he comes into this clash sitting pretty as the tournament’s leading points-scorer (172 points). With this match set to be played in a Test-match atmosphere, this will also be the perfect opportunity for McKenzie to convince All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson that he should be New Zealand’s first-choice fly-half for their upcoming series against England.

Another player who will be determined to remind Robertson of his ability is one-Test All Black Shaun Stevenson, who slots in at full-back for the men from Hamilton after being a late withdrawal ahead of their semi-final win over the Hurricanes in Wellington last week. Although he missed that match, the Chiefs still got the job done but Stevenson’s return will be a boost as he is a brilliant attacker and safe in the last line of defence.

Also, keep an eye on Chiefs hooker Tyrone Thompson, who comes into their run-on side after All Blacks star Samisoni Taukei’aho sustained an Achilles injury in last weekend’s win over the Hurricanes. Despite being the team’s third-choice hooker throughout the season, Thompson gets the starting role ahead of Bradley Slater, and he will have to be at his best in the execution of his core duties if the Chiefs want to be victorious.

Main head-to-head

There are several enticing battles set to take place across the field but the one that catches the eye is the duel between the two number eights in the Blues’ Hoskins Sotutu and Wallace Sititi of the Chiefs. While Sotutu has been in sparkling form throughout the season, Sititi has hit his straps during the latter stages of the Chiefs’ campaign and caught the eye with some outstanding performances.

Sotutu comes into the final as the tournament’s joint leading try-scorer – alongside Crusaders’ flyer Sevu Reece – and he is also tied with Springbok Malcolm Marx, fellow All Black Codie Taylor and Wallaby Folau Fainga’a for tries scored by a forward during a Super Rugby campaign. He has caught the eye with his excellent running lines and will be determined to add to his try tally for this year. However, in Sititi he faces a tough adversary who has given the Chiefs good momentum with his superb ball carrying skills. He will be keen to continue where he left off in the semi-final against the Hurricanes, as he finished with a whopping 150 metres gained.

Prediction

With both of these teams employing attacking game-plans, this encounter should be an entertaining one with plenty of end-to-end action throughout. The sides are evenly matched, but the home-ground advantage will swing it in the Blues’ favour. It will be close, but the Blues will win by three points.

Previous results

2024: Blues won 31-17 in Auckland
2023: Chiefs won 20-13 in Hamilton
2022: Blues won 25-0 in Hamilton
2022: Blues won 24-22 in Auckland
2021: Blues won 39-19 in Auckland
2021: Chiefs won 15-12 in Hamilton
2020: Chiefs won 37-29 in Auckland

The teams

Blues: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Mark Tele’a, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 AJ Lam, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Harry Plummer, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papali’i, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Sam Darry, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3 Marcel Renata, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Joshua Fusitu’a, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Josh Beehre, 20 Adrian Choat, 21 Taufa Funaki, 22 Bryce Heem, 23 Cole Forbes

Chiefs: 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Emoni Narawa, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Rameka Poihipi, 11 Etene Nanai-Seturo, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Cortez Ratima, 8 Wallace Sititi, 7 Luke Jacobson (c), 6 Samipeni Finau, 5 Tupou Vaa’i, 4 Jimmy Tupou, 3 George Dyer, 2 Tyrone Thompson, 1 Aidan Ross
Replacements: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Jared Proffit, 18 Reuben O’Neill, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Simon Parker, 21 Xavier Roe, 22 Quinn Tupaea, 23 Daniel Rona

Date: Saturday, June 22
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:05 local (08:05 BST, 07:05 GMT)
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Jordan Way (Australia), Damon Murphy (Australia)
TMO: Brett Cronan (Australia)

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