Wellington — The Crusaders showed there is no room for sentiment in their drive for a ninth Super Rugby crown against the Lions as they left out retiring great Wyatt Crockett for what would have been his last game.
The defending champions are overwhelming favourites to win Saturday’s final in Christchurch after clocking up a 14-match winning streak and going unbeaten in 20 play-off matches on home soil.
But despite their impressive record, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has warned the South Africans have "every chance" of pulling off an upset. He likened the build-up to the 2007 World Cup quarterfinals, when New Zealand were red-hot favourites to beat France "and we got smacked quite badly".
While Hansen said the Crusaders deserved to be regarded as favourites, "there’s no guarantee" they are going to win it. "When you look at a contest like this, you say to yourself ‘who’s going to dominate the scrums?’ and you can’t really say. ‘Who’s going to dominate the lineouts’ and you can’t really say."
The Crusaders, however, know how to win this trophy, while the Lions have become Super Rugby’s bridesmaids, losing the past two finals.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson took a hard-nosed approach on Thursday when naming his side to face one of the most feared packs in the competition. He tested his pack without Crockett in last week’s semifinal and opted to stay with Joe Moody at loose-head with Tim Perry on the bench.
It brings an end to Crockett’s illustrious career with the 35-year-old prop, who played 202 games for the Crusaders and 71 Tests for the All Blacks, having announced his retirement.
The only change to the Crusaders side that whipped the Hurricanes last week sees Heiden Bedwell-Curtis replace injured flanker Jordan Taufua, with Wallabies back-rower Pete Samu on the bench.
Robertson also preferred the youth of David Havili at fullback rather than recall the experienced Israel Dagg.
While the Lions have taken a "less is more" approach this week, the Crusaders have devoted plenty of time to working on how to quell their opponents’ pack, particularly when they get their rolling maul moving with Malcolm Marx holding the ball. "When a team has a big strength, as they do in that area, you have to put some time into it," said flanker Matt Todd.
"It’s a real momentum-changer for them. Not just with tries but also getting them field position," Todd said.
Although the Crusaders have not lost since mid-March, Lions coach Swys de Bruin said that did not make them unbeatable.
"We had 21 wins in a row against South African teams and we lost against the Sharks. It changes, you never know when, so hopefully it changes when we want it," he said.