The ACT Brumbies will not so much have to rewrite the record books as tear them to pieces and stamp the remains into the Hamilton turf if they are to deprive the Waikato Chiefs of successive Super Rugby titles this weekend.
Win or lose, today’s final will mark the end of 23,000km, three-week odyssey that has taken the Brumbies from a home playoff victory over the Central Cheetahs, through a semi-final upset of the Northern Bulls in Pretoria to the brink of a third title.
In their path stand Dave Rennie’s Waikato Chiefs, as fresh as a team can be a week after a typically bruising semi-final encounter with the Canterbury Crusaders and determined to retain the crown they won for the first time last year.
The match at the 25,000 capacity Waikato Stadium was sold out in six hours and the arena, in the heart of a city known affectionately as “the Tron,” will be no place for the faint-hearted today.
To say that precedent suggests a Chiefs win would be a major understatement.
Should the Brumbies win, they would become the first team from overseas to win any playoff match in New Zealand and the first side in 13 years to win the final outside their own country.
They would be the first to win the title after finishing outside the top two in the regular season standings and the first to triumph after winning a semi-final on another continent.
The Brumbies have lost all three of the finals they have contested away from Canberra, taking the title only on home soil in both 2001 and 2004.
“I’m under no illusions that it’s never been done before,” coach Jake White said in the flush of the victory over the Bulls in Pretoria. “But there’s a lot of things that haven’t been done by teams before and the Brumbies have done them week-in, week-out. Who knows? This is a special group of players. Two years ago no one gave us a chance.”
Two years ago, few would have predicted a Chiefs-Brumbies final at all, after the New Zealanders finished 10th and the Brumbies 13th in the standings.
Former World Cup-winning Springbok coach White has since turned things around in Canberra, while Rennie has had a more immediate impact upon his arrival in Hamilton.
Sonny Bill Williams helped them to the title last year, but the Chiefs were never even close to a one-man team and the hard-working forward pack that provided the platform for last year’s success remained for this year’s campaign.
With flyhalf Aaron Cruden’s influence growing game-by-game, the Chiefs brushed off a 43-15 hammering by the Crusaders a month ago to secure top spot in the final standings before gaining revenge over the Canterbury side last weekend.
Rennie named an unchanged side on Thursday subject to winger Lelia Masaga, who scored a stunning individual try in the 20-19 win over the Crusaders, passing a fitness test on his injured ankle.
“We are still highly motivated,” Rennie said on Thursday. “I guess the fact we have been here before gives you confidence and understanding of what to expect, and does not make it any easier. We have come up against a very good side who were very impressive at Loftus last week and have an outstanding coaching group.”
The experience of winning the title in the Brumbies camp is nine years old now and limited to evergreen flanker George Smith and revitalized winger Clyde Rathbone.
To give the Brumbies a chance, Smith will probably have to reprise his man of the match performance from last week in Pretoria, when the Brumbies became the first team to beat the Bulls in a semi-final at Loftus Versfeld.