The shape of the All Black team which competes at the Rugby World Cup may be determined during the Super 12 final today between the Auckland Blues and Canterbury Crusaders at Auckland's Eden Park.
Sentiment surrounding the match -- the first finals clash between the Blues and Crusaders since 1998 -- is enlivened by the heavyweight meeting between New Zealand rugby's southern and northern powers.
The Blues have been the form team of this year's competition, beaten only once in 11 matches during the regular season and conclusive winners of last week's semifinal against the Brumbies.
The Crusaders are regular champions, four-time winners of the Super 12 title and finalists in five of the last six years.
Their successes have led to Canterbury domination of All Black selections in recent seasons and, of their starting 15, 11 have played for New Zealand.
All but one of the Crusader forwards, former Brisbane league star Brad Thorn who will start at lock in place of the injured All Black Norm Maxwell, are internationals. Thorn, who has New Zealand parentage, was chosen for the All Blacks two seasons ago but declined selection.
The Blues, in contrast, have only a sprinkling of internationals. One of their motivations today will be that they might significantly increase their All Black representation if they outplay the Crusaders.
All Black coach John Mitchell will be in a position today to compare players and his selection for midseason test matches and for the World Cup in Australia in October and November might be influenced by finals form.
The Crusaders, who won the Super 12 in 1998, 1999, 2000 and last year, have come into their best form in recent weeks. They finished the competition strongly and crushed the Wellington Hurricanes 39-16 in the first of last week's semifinals.
Today's match promises a clash of styles. The Crusaders' use a narrow game plan, based on strong set pieces, ball retention and resilient defense. The Blues, inspired by creative flyhalf Carlos Spencer, are a more expansive side.
The key to success for the Blues will be their ability to match the Crusaders' formidable pack and to penetrate a defensive line which, at its best, is the most rigid in the Super 12.
Both sides have made an effort to minimize the selection aspects of the match.
"You have to be careful to treat it as just another game or you can get caught up in the hype and the errors creep in," said Blues coach Peter Sloane.