WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Christchurch is often the springboard for a pleasurable road trip in New Zealand but the Canterbury Crusaders’ home base has proved a dead end for the Super Rugby title hopes of the Wellington Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes face their demons again in the semi-final at Rugby League Park on Saturday when they take on the champions they have never beaten in a postseason match.
The Hurricanes have ventured south four times in the playoffs, including the infamous “foggy final” of 2006 when a thick mist at Lancaster Park turned the decider into something of a farce.
They left each time after a lesson in finals football from the competition’s benchmark side, and the weight of history will be a heavy burden for Chris Boyd’s team on the weekend.
That aside, the Hurricanes may be the only team capable of upsetting the eight-times champions, even if their form in the final rounds of the regular season was anything but inspiring.
Laden with All Blacks and boasting extraordinary firepower, the Hurricanes have won eight of their last 12 matches against the Crusaders, and edged them 29-19 at home in March after storming to an early 21-0 lead.
Most neutral fans will see the follow-up match in Christchurch in May as the more likely pointer to Saturday’s clash, however.
Lacking seven first-choice players, the Crusaders forwards completely choked off supply to flyhalf Beauden Barrett and the Hurricanes backs to claim a bruising 24-13 win in the wet.
The Hurricanes bring an unchanged starting 15, with Barrett’s brother Jordie starting in the midfield again rather than his usual position at fullback, after impressing in the number 13 jersey in the quarter-final win over the Waikato Chiefs.
“Personally I think he’s a better 15,” said Boyd. “But he likes the midfield and he did enough for me last week to suggest that was the right way for us to start. I’m sure it won’t be how we finish.”
All Blacks loose forward Ardie Savea, whose season looked over after suffering an ankle injury against France, has been included on the bench but bracketed with Reed Prinsep should he fail to prove his fitness.
The Crusaders have made one change to their starting side, with All Blacks prop Joe Moody returning after missing the 40-10 quarter-final mauling of the Sharks.
Against a machine-like Crusaders team determined to build a dynasty, the Hurricanes will need inspiration to mount an upset, a quality usually delivered by the brilliant Beauden Barrett.
“In the semi-final the big players get up and we expect Beauden Barrett to bring his best game, as with all their players,” said assistant coach Brad Mooar.
“We have to be at our best to beat the best.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty