It all comes down to this weekend. The 2023 Super Rugby Pacific reaches its conclusion with only two teams remaining in the battle for glory as the Chiefs host the Crusaders.
The final is set to be a thrilling clash between two evenly matched teams and only one will lift the title. With that in mind, Planet Rugby selects five storylines to follow in the intriguing finale.
Two best teams fight for it all
There are so many variables in the game of rugby union that are emphasised even further in knockout rugby, which does not always result in the two best sides making it to the final. Fortunately, that is the case in this context.
The Chiefs were certainly the best side of the regular season as their sole loss in the campaign – against the Reds in Round 12 – suggests. Inspired by the brilliance of Damian McKenzie and the balance of a very powerful pack, the Waikato men grew with each minute and stuck their flag in the ground at the summit of the competition.
The second best was the Crusaders who may not have had the best start but gathered momentum in the backend of their campaign. The Christchurch-based side is high-powered with quality and experience across the park, making for a highly-awaited battle.
It’s all set to be a fascinating clash.
— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) June 21, 2023
Chiefs looking to avoid late wobble
Play-off rugby can often be about momentum and luck. How much does a team have of each, and have they used up their luck? Take the Blues last season, who went into the final on an incredible run, but wobbled at the final hurdle as the Crusaders killed their momentum.
The Chiefs will be conscious of avoiding a late dip in the biggest of games. There is no questioning the ability, tactical nous or desire of the Waikato men, but the pressure of a final is different.
Stick to what has worked will be the likely watchwords for the week as that has powered them to the top of the pile.
However, with margins so fine and stakes so high, it will be a massive test. It is one thing to get to the top but it is another to get reward for it. Only time will tell if this Chiefs side truly has that champion mentality.
Crusaders play-off threat
Standing in the Chiefs’ way are the knockout experts. Crusaders rugby is all about winning titles. It’s not about finishing top of the regular season or going on a crazy unbeaten streak, it’s about lifting the trophy when all is said and done.
Just like last season they would not have been very happy with their regular season form but are picking up momentum at the right time, as they almost inevitably do.
The team comes into the final having scored a ridiculous 101 points against the Fijian Drua and the Blues in the first two play-off matches. Needless to say, the red machine is absolutely purring and there will be a holistic belief that a ‘smash and grab’ is on the cards.
Trademark Crusaders ⚔️
— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) June 20, 2023
Battle for the All Blacks 10 jersey?
Regardless of the outcome of the final, Chiefs playmaker McKenzie is hands down the player of the competition for us. He has transformed his team and been a catalyst for their success.
McKenzie’s performance levels have been so high that All Blacks head coach Ian Foster may be tempted to consider the smiling assassin over his opposite number and incumbent Richie Mo’unga.
The All Blacks clearly see the Chief in their future having offered him a contract beyond the World Cup, with the likes of Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett heading abroad. It will be interesting to see if he could be a key player in France later this year.
A battle between the top two fly-halves in the final is a dream for Foster. McKenzie arguably got the better of Mo’unga in the regular season but the Crusader is a more than reliable performer in play-off rugby.
Both players will know this is a crucial battle and whoever can perform under the greatest pressure could well have one hand on the All Black 10 shirt.
A battle of epic proportions awaits at pivot on Saturday.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) June 21, 2023
Send-off for Scott Robertson
The Crusaders boss will bid farewell to his team as he steps into the All Blacks hot seat after the World Cup, which is a richly deserved appointment for a coach who is a prolific winner.
Robertson is a Christchurch man through and through having played for Canterbury and the Crusaders as a loose forward. As a coach, it is pretty much all he has known outside of a one-off game at the helm of the Barbarians and a stint with New Zealand U20.
After working as an assistant and then a head coach for Canterbury from 2008 to 2016, the tactician stepped into the Crusaders role a year later where he won a Super Rugby title (in various iterations) at every time of asking.
He reinvented a dynasty in Christchurch and as a character typifies everything about the team’s ethos; bravery, commitment, boldness and work rate. Robertson will go down as one of the greatest coaches in Super Rugby history.
The superb coach has one last game in red. It is the end of an era, one he would like to seal with his trademark dance after winning yet another title.
— Super Rugby Pacific (@SuperRugby) June 18, 2022