New Zealand's nomadic Crusaders will battle travel fatigue and a resurgent Reds as they look to seal an emotional eighth Super Rugby crown in Brisbane on Saturday.
The Crusaders have notched up more than 100,000 kilometres during their indomitable run to the Final after the deadly Christchurch earthquake rendered their home ground unplayable in February.
They have dominated the 16 seasons of Super Rugby with seven championships and are now in their 10th final and on the cusp of what would prove to be their most poignant triumph of all.
In contrast the Reds are chasing an elusive Super Rugby title after finishing top of the standings, rising phoenix-like from six seasons (2004-2009) wallowing in the bottom three to host their first Super Rugby decider in the professional era. They did win two Super 10 titles (1994 and 1995) in the amateur days.
Not even a round trip to South Africa stopped the Kiwi juggernauts as they brushed aside the Stormers 29-10 in last weekend's Cape Town semifinal to set up an absorbing Final in Brisbane.
In the process the Crusaders became the first team since 2000 to win a post-season match outside their own country, when they beat the Brumbies 20-19 in the Final in Canberra.
Even bookmakers have installed the Crusaders as odds-on favourites to make it title number eight although the Reds won their last encounter 17-16 in Brisbane on May 29.
The Crusaders dominated the Queenslanders for 10 seasons before Ewen McKenzie's men pulled off a 41-20 upset in Brisbane last year with mercurial Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper netting a Reds' record 31 points.
Cooper, who displayed a full range of attacking sorcery against the Blues last weekend, is the key man in Saturday's decider.
It was Cooper's last-minute penalty off a Richie McCaw ruck infringement in May that snatched victory for the Reds and the Crusaders will be on their guard to snuff out Cooper's running in the Final.
"Quade's just been in unbelievable form. He's taking on defensive lines and breaking them," Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said. "He's been absolutely sensational."
McKenzie takes no credit for Cooper's freakish skills to unlock rival defences.
"I'm not going to take any coaching credit for that," McKenzie said after the 30-13 semifinal win over the Blues. "That was just pure Quade. I'm still working out how he set up Ben Tapuai's try.
"I said it during the week, the bigger the stage the more he likes it."
But while the Reds have the irrepressible Cooper, the Crusaders have All Black match-winners Richie McCaw and Dan Carter plus the off-loading skills of centre Sonny Bill Williams.
McCaw and Carter have inspired the Crusaders to countless victories over the years and it will be their composure under fire that may be enough to get the Kiwis home yet again.
The Reds for the first time this season have named the same 22-man squad in consecutive weeks.
"At this stage you benefit greatly from continuity and the team we selected against the Blues did a wonderful job and deserve another opportunity," McKenzie said.
"We've accomplished a lot both on and off the field in the past 18 months and a final victory would be an incredible way to cap off this season."
Crusaders scrumhalf Andy Ellis passed a fitness test as he recovered from knee and shoulder bruising. Kahn Fotuali'i has dropped back to the bench.
"Defensively, we have to be on top of our game," Blackadder said.
"They've got [scrumhalf] Will Genia running around the sides of the rucks with the forwards and they can roll out the back to Cooper.
"When they get on the front foot they have a lot of threats. We have to be defensively sound."
The Super Rugby Final is set to break Australia's provincial attendance record with an expected crowd of 52,000.
Reds coach Ewen McKenzie is expecting another tight affair on Saturday, similar to their regular season meeting - which ended in a hard fought 17-16 win for the Reds.
"Playing in a Final is something you treasure and never take for granted, and I know the team is excited by the opportunity in front of them," he said.
"We've accomplished a lot both on and off the field in the past 18 months and a Super Rugby Final victory would be an incredible way to cap off this season for Queensland Rugby and our fans.
"The support we've received all year has been incredible and it's especially humbling to see so many fans get behind us, send us messages of congratulations and flock through the gates, after many have been impacted by the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi."
Players to watch:
For the Reds: After his hat-trick last week wing Rod Davies will be closely observed by the Crusaders' defenders, almost as much as the halfback combination of Quade Cooper and Will Genia. Radike Samo's all action game makes him worth watching, while Scott Higginbotham and James Horwill will stoke the fire in the boiler room.
For the Crusaders: You never have to look past the midfield - where you have the enigmatic Sonny Bill Williams, but Dan Carter is the general that directs the troops, often from behind the safety of a pack that features old hands like Richie McCaw and Brad Thorn.
Head to head: It has to start in the midfield - Anthony Faingaa and Ben Tapuai (Reds) against Robbie Fruean and Sonny Bill Williams (Crusaders). However, no showdown is more delectable that the flyhalf battle - Quade Cooper (Reds) facing off against Dan Carter (Crusaders). How about the front row - where the Reds combination of Greg Holmes, Saia Faingaa and Ben Daley will be up against a scrum that features the bearded wonders Owen Franks and Corey Flynn, along with Wyatt Crockett.
2011: Reds won 17-16, Brisbane
2010: Reds won 41-20, Brisbane
2009: Crusaders won 32-12, Christchurch
2008: Crusaders 27-21, Brisbane
2007: Crusaders 33-22, Christchurch
2006: Crusaders won 47-21, Brisbane
Road to the Final:
For the Reds:
Round 1: Beat Force 21-20, Brisbane
Round 2: Lost to Waratahs 6-30, Sydney
Round 3: Beat Brumbies 31-25, Canberra
Round 4: Bye
Round 5: Beat Rebels 53-3, Brisbane
Round 6: Beat Cheetahs 41-8, Brisbane
Round 7: Beat Lions 30-25, Johannesburg
Round 8: Beat Stormers 19-6, Cape Town
Round 9: Beat Bulls 39-30, Brisbane
Round 10: Beat Waratahs 19-15, Brisbane
Round 11: Lost to Hurricanes 26-28, Wellington
Round 12: Beat Rebels 33-18, Melbourne
Round 13: Beat Blues 37-31, Brisbane
Round 14: Bye
Round 15: Beat Crusaders 17-16, Brisbane
Round 16: Lost to Brumbies 14-22, Brisbane
Round 17: Beat Force 24-21, Perth
Round 18: Beat Chiefs 19-11, Hamilton
Semifinal: Beat Blues 30-13, Brisbane
For the Crusaders:
Round 1: Lost to Blues 22-24, Auckland
Round 2: Game versus Hurricanes cancelled
Round 3: Beat Waratahs 33-18, Nelson
Round 4: Bear Brumbies 52-10, Nelson
Round 5: Beat Highlanders 44-13, Dunedin
Round 6: Beat Sharks 44-28, London
Round 7: Bye
Round 8: Beat Bulls 27-0, Timaru
Round 9: Beat Chiefs 34-16, Tauranga
Round 10: Lost to Highlanders 18-26, Nelson
Round 11: Beat Force 42-30, Perth
Round 12: Beat Stormers 20-14, Cape Town
Round 13: Lost to Cheetahs 20-33, Bloemfontein
Round 14: Beat Chiefs 25-19, Napier
Round 15: Lost to Reds 16-17, Brisbane
Round 16: Bye
Round 17: Beat Blues 23-16, Timaru
Round 18: Beat Hurricanes 16-9, Wellington
Play-off qualifier: Beat Sharks 36-8 Nelson
Semifinal: Beat Stormers 29-10, Cape Town
rugby365.com Prediction: There is the sentimental vote, who wants the Crusaders' fairytale to be completed, but that would be unfair to the Reds, who themselves have had to deal with the dramatic floods earlier this year that left this very same Suncorp Stadium under water. So lets' look at the merits only. Which team has played in and won the most 'big' games? That has to be the Crusaders. Seven Super Rugby titles means there is a culture of winning. However, the Reds have a few game breakers, a Quade Cooper and a Will Genia, who can turn any match in an instant. The Crusaders have some of those as well - like Zac Guildford. But in the Final it is about BMT and we feel the Crusaders have more of that than the Reds. It will be close, but the Crusaders will sneak the win by about 10 points.
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Reds: 15 Jono Lance, 14 Rod Davies, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Radike Samo, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Scott Higginbotham, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Ben Daley.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Guy Shepherdson, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Jake Schatz, 20 Liam Gill, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Will Chambers.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Matt Todd, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Matt Berquist, 22 Ryan Crotty.
Date: Saturday, July 9
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 19.40 (09.40 GMT)
Expected weather: Clear skies. Low of 5°C, high of 20°C
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Stuart Dickinson (Australia), Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
AFP & rugby365.com
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