Rugby does not get much better than this as a sell-out crowd greets the Reds and Crusaders in the 2011 Super Rugby Final this Saturday.
Rugby does not get much better than this as a sell-out crowd greet the Reds and Crusaders in the Super Rugby Final at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
Quade Cooper against Dan Carter, James Horwill against Brad Thorn, Zac Guildford against Rod Davies; the list goes on for what may be a classic.
Few neutrals would argue that these two have been the best sides in 2011 and also that it is the ideal showpiece to end this inaugural extended campaign. Yes, some have not warmed to the format but the fact the Currie Cup follows the week after this and the Tri-Nations starts in a fortnight does beg the question of whether it's too much rugby before a World Cup. The Northern followers may retort sarcastically, 'cry me a river'.
Nick Easter apparently hopes that Southern stars might get tired out after their recent exploits. But with the Crusaders seemingly getting stronger and stronger – despite their travels – and the Reds putting on an attacking masterclass each time they take the field, that may be wishful thinking.
So how did they get here? The Stormers were blown away last week but Allister Coetzee raised a fair point that injuries came as a blow to their game. Two years in the making, the Crusaders scrum enjoyed its finest hour under Todd Blackadder and with James Slipper absent in Reds colours, one would expect a similar set-piece result in the final. Wyatt Crockett has been superb of late alongside either Owen or Ben Franks.
Ewen McKenzie's side meanwhile could not be moving in a more positive direction. It was in 2007 that they were beaten 92-3 by the Bulls during possibly their lowest ebb as an outfit, before the turnaround began to find its feet. Now they have a team that last weekend had eight players on the field at 24 years or younger and are hosting their first ever Super Rugby final. How things have changed for the Queenslanders, who head into this as underdogs.
Whether that is a fair call from the bookmakers has left our resident pundits on a split vote. Two say they would have the Reds as favourites due to the Crusaders having to once again travel while one is backing the New Zealanders' grit to prevail. Our ballsy Tipster has a whopping Â£1000 on the Crusaders! That's a bit rich for us but one thing we can all more or less agree on is that a lot of players on Saturday could face-off in the 2011 World Cup Final.
But that is getting ahead of ourselves. If the Reds are to repeat their 17-16 win over their final opponents then they will need a lot more than another record Australian crowd and their key players to fire. That contentious victory on May 29 – remember the last-minute penalty call aimed at Richie McCaw – was not the Kiwis' strongest XV by a long stretch as this time they have Zac Guildford and Sam Whitelock in their team, while the Reds are missing James Slipper, Luke Morahan and Ben Lucas. And for the pessimists amongst you, there is no Stu Dickinson in attendance, but New Zealand official Bryce Lawrence.
Who will also be there are 52,000 home fans belting out 'We are Red'. But when Lawrence blows the final whistle, will it be the red of Queensland holding aloft their first title since 1995 or the Christchurch outfit claiming their eighth – their biggest achievement of them all?
Ones to watch:
For Reds: If anyone can keep Quade Cooper quiet it's the Crusaders. If he ticks alongside Will Genia and his pack of forwards get him front-foot ball, silverware could be going the way of the Reds. However, go into his shell or get found out in defence at either wing or full-back then expect the trophy to head back across the Tasman to New Zealand. And what a boost that would be for the people of Christchurch following such a difficult year.
For Crusaders: Wyatt Crockett was a rock against the Stormers and was possibly already eyeing up Greg Holmes before that game at Newlands began. His performance could well shape how this one pans out. While Ben Daley and Saia Faingaa are decent metre makers, the scrum is not their biggest strength so this is where the prepared Crusaders may see an opening. Don't be surprised to see Zac Guildford scoring in another a busy showing.
Head-to-head: I am particularly looking forward to the battle at centre where Ben Tapuai and Anthony Faingaa face Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Freuan. This quartet have been in good form of late and, like the scrum, the midfield battle will be a key area. The Stormers saw that if you give Sonny Bill an inch, he will hand Freuan a mile but this week they could find defending their light-footed opponents a far different challenge to that of the more direct Jean de Villiers and Jaque Fourie. I expect the Reds duo to ask them a lot more questions.
2011: Reds won 17-16 in Brisbane
2010: Reds won 41-20 in Brisbane
2009: Crusaders won 32-12 in Christchurch
2008: Crusaders won 27-21 in Brisbane
2007: Crusaders won 33-22 in Christchurch
2006: Crusaders won 47-21 in Brisbane
Prediction: While the Crusaders have the Super Rugby final experience and may get the edge up front, I think that home advantage coupled with the unparraelled attacking brand these Reds possess will see them sneak it. This may to-and-fro but Reds by about 4!
Reds: 15 Jono Lance, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 James Horwill (c), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Guy Shepherdson, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Jake Schatz, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Will Chambers.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Matt Todd, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Matt Berquist, 22 Ryan Crotty.
Date: Saturday, July 9
Kick-off: 19:40 (10:40 BST)
Venue: Suncorp Stadium
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
By Adam Kyriacou