The Crusaders have weathered the storm and are marching on to a sold out Suncorp Stadium to meet the Reds in a highly anticipated Super Rugby final showdown.
They are one hurdle away from completing an epic campaign that has been full of adversity and challenges for everyone involved in the Crusaders setup. In their way stand a very impressive Reds outfit determined to create some history of their own.
The Reds were very impressive against the Blues in the first semi-final of the weekend. The Blues took the game to the Reds from the start and put the Reds defence under a lot of pressure. Unfortunately they weren't able to convert the pressure into points and it was the Reds that struck first with Rod Davis intercepting a pass from Lachie Munro and racing away half the length of the field to score the opening try.
The Blues were guilty of not kicking the ball into touch on several occasions which allowed Quade Cooper some space to counter attack. He showed his class in creating Ben Tapuai's try. He fielded a kick near the halfway line, unceremoniously dumped Munro as he beat the chasing player's attempted tackle, threw two ridiculous dummy's ( even catching out the cameraman twice), offloaded in the final tackle to Tapuai who finished off a moment of brilliance by Super Cooper. The Blues were finally rewarded for all their efforts right on halftime through Chris Lowrey scoring a simple try from a lineout.
The Reds started the second half strongly and scored from a great lineout set-piece move. Rod Davies inserted himself in the backline from the blind wing and rounded Jared Payne defending at 13 to score his second of the game. Will Genia had another commanding game from scrumhalf, varying and dictating play well with some probing kicks from the base. That pressure mounted and frustrated the Blues play and eventually resulted in Rod Davies scoring his third of the game and the first hat-trick of tries by a Reds player in Super Rugby.
The late introduction of Rene Ranger in the Blues attacked caused an occasional flurry of excitement in a very lateral Blues attack, but it was not enough to worry the Reds solid defence. Although Quade Cooper was somewhat erratic with the boot he sealed the win with a superbly taken dropped goal reaffirming his superstar qualities. The Reds will go into this week's final full of confidence after convincingly outplaying the Blues.
Stormers end with a whimper
In a damp Cape Town the Crusaders totally out muscled the Stormers on their home ground. Apart from a brief period of pressure on the Crusaders try line early on the Stormers never seemed to be able to cause the Crusaders' defence any real problems.
Brad Thorne led the charge in defence making some crunching tackles on any oncoming Stormers attacker. That physical dominance in the tackle and at the breakdown caused the Stormers to spill the ball in contact allowing Wyatt Crockett, Cory Flynn and Owen Franks to totally demolish the Stormers' scrum.
The pressure on defence paid off for Sean Maitland as he intercepted a forced pass from Nick Koster to score the first try of the match. Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean combined well for the Crusaders' second with SBW drawing two defenders before off-loading to Fruean to score. The only consolation for Stormers and Springbok fans were the form of Bryan Habana in this game. His tireless effort finally paid off in the dying minutes of the first half as he barged his way over after taking a quick penalty on the Crusaders' try line.
The Stormers woes continued in the second half, especially at scrum time. Schalk Burger also left the field due to a broken hand which added to their misery. Aided by some winter rain they did well in keeping the Crusaders try less in the second half though with Dan Carter only adding two more penalties to the Crusaders winning margin.
Schalk Brits had a couple of valiant attempts to cut the Crusaders' defence, but he didn't find any space in a solid defensive line. The Crusaders were able to give some of their big guns an early rest by replacing them with ample time remaining on the clock. The Crusaders will be satisfied by their physical dominance of the game, but the Stormers will be very disappointed as they heavily contributed to their own defeat.
Who will prevail?
This is going to be a closely contested one. The last time these two teams met Quade Cooper sealed the win in the dying minutes after Richie McCaw was contentiously penalised at the breakdown.
Both teams possess game-breakers behind solid packs of forwards. There will be some exciting match-ups to look out for. Digby Ioane and Rod Davies have some superb finishing skills as do Zac Guildford and Sean Maitland.
Ben Tapuai and Anthony Faingaa will have their work cut out for them containing Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean. Will Genia and Andy Ellis will keep each other busy, but the main focus will be on the tussle between Quade Cooper and Dan Carter. Both these players possess the skill set to turn a game in a moment of sublime play.
Up front the battle at the breakdown will be immense. Beau Robinson and Scott Higginbotham have been outstanding for the Reds this year and they will test themselves against incumbent All Blacks Richie McCaw and Kieran Read. James Horwill has been a tower of strength at lock and captain for the team from Brisbane and will square off against Brad Thorne and Sam Whitelock.
The deciding battle up front will be between the two front rows packing down against each other. It is here I feel the formidable trio of Crockett, Flynn and Franks will have the upper-hand and will swing the momentum in favour of the Crusaders.
The teams are very evenly matched up and in the end it will be down to the team which shows the most composure under finals pressure.
For this reason I'll back the Crusaders' wealth of experience to edge a close game.