Crunch time in the southern hemisphere
October 20, 2008
Auckland's Keven Mealamu, Isaia Toeava and Jerome Kaino celebrate victory in last year's New Zealand Cup Final © Getty Images
This weekend will see the conclusion of both the Currie Cup and the New Zealand Cup with some of the southern hemisphere's finest players going all out for their national glory and with it the all-important bragging rights.
First up is the final of this year's provincial competition in New Zealand with Wellington playing host to Canterbury in a final that many predicted at the start of the season. The first meeting of the two sides this season is also a repeat of the 2004 tournament finale that saw the Canterbury triumph in Christchurch.
All seemed to be going well for the Lions just three weeks ago as they wrapped up their ninth successive victory to cement their place at the top of the competition standings - however a surprise defeat at the hands of Otago in the last round offered hope to their title rivals.
Since then they have failed to find their best form and were far from convincing in their quarter-final victory over Taranaki before proving too strong for Southland in last weekend's semi-final - thanks largely to some brilliance from speedster Hosea Gear.
At home for the title-decider they remain favourites despite a woeful record when it comes to capturing the New Zealand provincial crown - this weekend will be their fifth final appearance in six years with the previous four all ending in defeat.
This heart-breaking run for the side based in the nation's capital began with defeat at the hands Canterbury in 2004 who, inspired by Justin Marshall and Dan Carter recorded a 40-27 triumph. Since then Auckland (twice) and Waikato have been the party-poopers but hopes are high that they can end their misery.
However, history does not necessarily favour Wellington, who also captured the Ranfurly Shield from Auckland earlier this year, with their last title having come in 2000. But they have the psychological advantage over their south island rivals having knocked them out of the competition at the semi-final stage last year and sending them packing in the last eight in 2006.
The WestPac Stadium fixture pits the flamboyant Wellington, who secured 8 try-scoring bonus points in the regular season, against the traditional forward grunt and defensive discipline of Canterbury who conceded just 11 tries during the same period.
Wellington have shown this season that they can be ruthless in broken play when their speed and handling skills come to the fore. However in recent weeks they have had to scrap their way to the final and against an unforgiving Canterbury side they may be forced into a similar approach this weekend.
Contrary to their Super 14 form, Canterbury have struggled to dominate all-comers on the domestic stage but can reflect on victories in 2001 and that 2004 final - and they may well be looking to their own potential match-winner in the form Colin Slade.
The Cheetahs' Rory Duncan lifts the Currie Cup after his side's victory in the 2007 tournament finale © Getty Images
The 21-year-old, who started the season trailing the admittedly unavailable Dan Carter, Stephen Brett and Hamish Gard in the race for the No.10 jersey has conjured some magnificent form to make it his own.
While Wellington came through their semi-final victory unscathed the same could not be said for Canterbury. All Blacks scrum-half Andy Ellis hobbled off with a knee injury, while top-scoring wing Michael Paterson and centre Casey Laulala were also forced out and time will tell if they make the starting line up for the final.
The final will also be an emotional occasion for some as Canterbury's Greg Somerville and Scott Hamilton bid farewell to New Zealand before heading north for pastures new while Wellington's Thomas Waldrom and Ross Filipo are on the move in the New Zealand.
The match may also prove to be a stepping stone for a new generation of stars with the New Zealand squad for next month's tour of Europe set to be confirmed at its conclusion.
Later the same day and the small matter of 7,000 or so miles away, The Sharks and the Blue Bulls will go head-to-head for the highly-prized Currie Cup crown.
As hosts of this year's final in Durban, the Sharks will be hoping to end a 12-year title drought and come into the game free of injury worries and fresh from the bizarre lay week both sides have had the luxury of.
But in the Blue Bulls they face a side that has been there and done that having competed in five of the last six finals and come out on top on four occasions - although on the last occasion in 2006 they had to settle for a share of the spoils following an epic 28-28 draw with the Cheetahs.
The Sharks and Blue Bulls finished first and second at the end of the regular season and booked their passage to the final with hard-fought victories over the Cheetahs and Lions respectively - they go head-to-head for the title for the first time since 2003 when the Blue Bulls overpowered the Sharks 40-19.
Another element to this game revolves around the 2006 Super 14 Final that saw the Bulls snatch a dramatic victory over the Sharks in the dying moments of the game. Although the protagonists have played down talk of revenge there must still be some scores to be settled.
In terms of regular season form, the honours are even with the Blue Bulls having triumphed 35-14 at Loftus in July while the Sharks came out on top 34-25 in Durban last month.
Finals are often decided by moments of brilliance and there will be no shortage of talent on show when the two sides square up - with Springboks aplenty ensuring some intriguing personal battles under the eyes of the national selectors.
For the armchair fan the two games provide a mouth-watering menu and perfect appetizer for a feast of international rugby next month.
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