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Blues, Chiefs to chase Super Rugby titles after long droughts

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Auckland-based Blues will play the Hamilton-based Chiefs in an all New Zealand Super Rugby Pacific final on Saturday which has a strong sense of destiny for both teams.

The Blues have been pursuing their third Super Rugby title for more than 20 years, fruitlessly and often disastrously. They last won a full Super Rugby competition in 2003 and their best effort since was to win a truncated New Zealand tournament during the pandemic.

New Zealand rugby probably is poorer for the Blues’ struggles and a win might help re-engage many young Aucklanders who have drifted to other sports, mainly rugby league and basketball.

The Blues will come into the final as favourites on seeding after ousting Australia’s last hope, the Brumbies, in their semifinal. They will host the final against the Chiefs who upset the top-seeded Hurricanes 30-19 in Wellington.

The Chiefs arrive at the final with the wind at their back, in top form and with a real feeling that destiny is with them, that they will finally add to their second title which they won under Dave Rennie in 2013.

The manner in which they ousted the Hurricanes on their home ground in Wellington and in front of almost 30,000 fans who for most of the match were stunned into silence should be a warning to the Blues.

The Hurricanes always were going to be vulnerable to a fast start and the Chiefs produced that, scoring two tries in the first six minutes and adding a penalty to lead 17-0. There was no hope of the Hurricanes rallying from that deficit in the face of an intensely physical Chiefs defence which forced them into constant errors and hasty, inaccurate kicks.

Harry Plummer of the Blues, center, takes a high ball during their Super Rugby Pacific semi-final match against the Brumbies at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Friday, June 14, 2024. PHOTO: AP

Young backrower Wallace Sititi had an outstanding match for the Chiefs and it was his intercept, leading to a try to Daniel Rona that finally sealed the Hurricanes’ fate.

Sititi might have levelled a challenge too to new All Blacks head coach Scott Robertson. There will be interest when Robertson names his first squad of the season to play England to see whether he recognises the form players of the current season or sticks mainly with the Crusaders players he knows best.

A number of young players have stood up this year and demanded recognition. Sititi’s run might have come too late but Hurricanes flanker Peter Lakai and fullback Reuben Love, Chiefs wingers Emoni Narawa and Etene Nanai-Seturo, flanker Samipeni Finau, scrumhalf Cortez Ratima all are demanding consideration.

The Chiefs will go into Saturday’s final without hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho and possibly back-up hooker Bradley Slater who were both injured against the Hurricanes. Taukei’aho looked an All Blacks certainty but has suffered a calf injury and Slater failed a head injury assessment.

“It’s pretty bad,” Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said of Taukei’aho’s injury. “We might be looking for another hooker. It’s either a calf or an Achilles. I don’t think it’s real serious but something went there.”

Semifinals often are the stages on which young players announce themselves and Sititi’s performance was headline-grabbing.

Tupou Vaa’i of the Chiefs wins a lineout during the Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinal match between the Waikato Chiefs and the Queensland Reds at FMG Stadium in Hamilton, New Zealand, Friday, June 7, 2024. PHOTO: AP

“I thought he was immense,” McMillan said. “He had a number of involvements in big plays. He’s got a massive future.

“There were a lot of good rugby players running out there today and it was talked about in the media that this was like an All Blacks trial of sorts. Well if it was then a number of our guys would be putting their names in pencil if not ink.”

The Blues were satisfied with their performance against the Brumbies as a final preparation. They also scored early, led 27-13 at halftime and held out a Brumbies rally in the second half.

The Blues head again to the final, two years after their last confident bid for the title was thwarted by the Crusaders. Captain Dalton Papali’i recalled that loss and its cause: “complacency.”

“We’ve been reminded a couple of times this year, once against the Canes and once against the Crusaders, we can’t leave anything unchecked,” Papali’i said.

“The good thing this year is that we’ve had those reminders.”