The Chiefs have set the pace for most of the season, but the Crusaders have caught up.
However, all that will be irrelevant when they go head-to-head in an all-New Zealand semifinal in Hamilton on Friday.
Only 80 minutes stand between the Crusaders and an 11th appearance in a Final (they won seven of those), while the Chiefs will be aiming for just their second appearance on a Final.
The 2012 New Zealand conference winners, the Chiefs, have managed to reach the play-offs just twice before – getting a 32-17 drubbing from the eventual champions, the Brumbies, in the semifinals in 2004 and suffering the humiliation of a 61-17 record beating by the Bulls in 2009.
The star-studded Chiefs, with a wile Wayne Smith on their coaching staff, are determined to end their poor run of play-off performances.
And Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder is wary of the threats posed by his compatriots.
Having managed to easily account for a predictable Bulls outfit in the preliminary play-offs last week, he knows it will be a far more testing encounter with a Chiefs team capable of a very expansive game.
“Every team has their strengths and weaknesses,” he said, when questioned about what to expect from Friday’s semifinal showdown.
“They [the Chiefs] are a great side and that is why they ended up second on the ladder.”
Blackadder felt the Chiefs have the ability to play any type of game.
“They are certainly good at off-loading and a good counter-attack side,” he said of the men from Hamilton.
The Crusaders coach was unsure of the Chiefs, who like the table-topping Stormers had a bye in the preliminary round of the play-offs – will have an advantage over his team, who faced a bruising Bulls team.
“We’ve never had that luxury before,” he said of the First Round bye, adding: “We were in a similar position last year and we managed to go through.
“I don’t think it really counts so much, it is just about what we do this week.
“They will have just as much time to prepare as us. They never knew who they were going to play until Saturday.”
Asked if he felt his team can you back up that physical intensity they showed against the Bulls last week, Blackadder said: “We have to, otherwise you come second and the season is over.”
The Crusaders and Chiefs have met twice this year – with the first encounter going to the Chiefs and the Crusaders getting revenge in Hamilton three weeks ago.
“They’ll be better prepared than last time,” he said of the Crusaders’ seven-point win.
“We gave them a real wake-up call … they have had two weeks to sort it out.
“I expect they will throw some new stuff out there and catch us off-guard.”
Players to watch:
For the Chiefs: It may well be his last match on New Zealand soil, so you will automatically look at code-hopping Sonny Bill Williams to make an impact with off-loads. However, the real backline stars may well be the back three – Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams and Asaeli Tikoirotuma. Of course will look to see if the Tongan torpedo, Sona Taumalolo can continue his try-scoring feats, while Kane Thompson, Tanerau Latimer and Liam Messam will have their work cut out at the breakdown.
For the Crusaders: Do you ever look past Richie McCaw and Dan carter? Probably never! However, Israel Dagg and Robbie Fruean can be match-winners in their own right, while Luke Romano is one of the finds of the season. Ben Franks, starting ahead of brother Owen, will also be worth keeping an eye on.
Head to head: You simply don’t get much bigger duels than the halfback pairings – Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs) against Dan Carter and Andy Ellis (Crusaders). Of this, only Kerr-Barlow is not a senior international, although he has represented his country at age-group level and is said to be on the All Black short-list. Craig Clarke (Chiefs) versus Luke Romano (Crusaders) in the line-outs is also worth the entry fee.
2012: Crusaders won 28-21, Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 24-19, Napier
2011: Crusaders won 25-19, Napier
2011: Crusaders won 34-16, Tauranga
2010: Crusaders won 26-19, Hamilton
Results in play-offs:
They have never met in play-offs
Prediction: There is a reason the Chiefs have never kicked on in the play-offs and won the tournament – too often they have been all flash and no substance. The Crusaders, however, often start the season looking vulnerable, gain momentum and then go on to win the title … seven times they have done that. We feel the visitors have too much BMT and will ease away. The Crusaders by about 10 points.
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Andrew Horrell, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Kane Thompson, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (captain), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Sona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Richie McCaw (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tom Taylor, 22 Sean Maitland.
Date: Friday 27 July
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 09:35 SA Time (19:36 NZ Time, 07:35 GMT)
Expected weather: Clear in the morning, then overcast and winds from the East at 10 to 15 km/h. High of 13°C, low of 2°C
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan, Keith Brown
TMO: Garratt Williamson