Four talking points from Super Rugby Transtasman ahead of Saturday's final.
Welcome to the new Blues, not like the old Blues
Leon MacDonald is one of the most grounded people in rugby. He was a schoolboy superstar, in the First XV at Marlborough Boys' as a 14-year-old, but 20 years ago his school coach, Kieran Keane, told me that "A lot of talented boys are not too interested in listening to people at times, but that was never the case with Leon. He was a quintessential team man, very mature for his age, and a hell of a nice bloke."
Nothing's changed, and you can see some of the gritty character of MacDonald in a Blues team that now stands on the brink of making their own history.
There were hiccups in Super Rugby Aotearoa, but in the Transtasman series the Blues found a consistency that had been eluding them for almost two decades.
The personnel hasn't changed a great deal, so the difference has to be in attitude and coaching. The Force had troubled the Crusaders in Christchurch, but with the Blues ahead 28-0 at halftime at Eden Park, the 31-21 victory was almost a formality.
Highlanders bring the party to Auckland
If the Blues stumbled a bit earlier in the season, it's taken the Highlanders even longer to find their mojo, but they showed what they're made of in the outstanding performance of the round.
The Brumbies in Canberra in 2021 are, it's true, not the mincing machine they were in the glory days of Stephen Larkham, George Gregan and Stirling Mortlock. But they're one of the two best Australian teams, and to beat them 33-12 in Canberra on Friday night was a stunning effort.
As he has all season, the man at the centre of the team's success was Aaron Smith, whose play makes the Energiser Bunny look lazy. Just when you think Smith couldn't impress any more he does.
There were two very good tries for Smith, but his most gold standard moment came in the 62nd minute when he speared a pass for Sio Tomkinson to plunge over and score. The ball bulleted past big forward Josh Dickson so quickly he knew to leave the Tomkinson-seeking missile completely alone.
The last time Eden Park had a final
When the Blues last featured in a Super Rugby final - a pulsating 21-17 win over the Crusaders in Auckland in late May 2003 - YouTube was still two years away from launching, Apple's iTunes Store was a month old, and fullback Zarn Sullivan had two years to go before he started primary school.
The star of the show in that final was Carlos Spencer, the daring Blues first-five. He was a constant danger on attack, but if there are lessons to be learned from history, and there usually are, it was his goal-kicking that won the day, not his running or try-scoring.
Spencer kicked three penalty goals, while two Crusaders - the veteran Andrew Mehrtens, and a rookie still on the cusp of the All Blacks, Dan Carter - missed shots that could have won the game.
If the going gets tight this Saturday night the title may come down to whether Otere Black or Mitch Hunt handles the kicking duties best.
To the surprise of some they are human
There have been a lot of strange experiences for the Crusaders in the Transtasman competition. Like most of the New Zealand sides it was a new world to learn that just winning against the Australian sides wasn't enough, you needed to win big, with a bonus point and a wide margin.
Oddly, for a side that usually feels at home with a foot on the opponent's throat, crushing victories proved hard to come by.
In a way the 52-26 win over the Rebels in Sydney summed up the problems that had dogged them since the Brumbies denied them a bonus point in Christchurch back in the middle of May.
There was a brilliant start against the Rebels, ahead 14-0 after just five minutes. The Crusaders held the lead, but the chase for the 33-point margin they needed to make the final, kept tilting away from them.
The prime example was late in the first half when Braydon Ennor had a nightmare moment that good money says has never happened to him before, and never will again. In the clear, racing away from a try, the ball popped out of his arm.
The Crusaders have a great attitude, so they chased to the end, but for the first time since Scott Robertson took over as coach, this wasn't their time.