Deans: Reds-Stormers final
Sydney - The Reds and Stormers, having rested their weary bodies for a week while their rivals slugged it out in the playoffs, will have the confidence of favourites looking forward to next week's Super rugby semi-finals.
The seven-times champion Crusaders rounded out the last four line-up with Saturday's victory over the Sharks and their incredible journey will now take them back to South Africa to face the Stormers next weekend.
The Blues, three-times champions, earned the shorter trip to Brisbane for their semi-final with Friday's win over the Waratahs but will face the top-ranked side in the competition in Ewen McKenzie's Reds.
The Crusaders, denied a single proper home match this season by February's deadly earthquake in Christchurch, have been knocked out at the semi-final stage on South African soil for three of the last four years.
Next Saturday, however, it will not be their nemesis the Bulls who stand in the way to the final but the Cape Town-based Stormers, who have built their success this season on tough tackling and stingy defence.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee watched with interest as the Sharks enjoyed some early success against the Crusaders in Saturday's match in Nelson before going down 36-8.
"If you can execute the double hits and maintain the pressure, you can break the Crusaders' momentum," he told South Africa's Sunday Times. "The Sharks' performance gave us things to look at and it just reminded how important it is to be aggressive in the tackle.
"I think we have the firepower to contest with them. Besides, we are playing at Newlands and there is going to be an amazing atmosphere."
The Crusaders will take confidence from their 20-14 victory at Newlands in round 12 and also look likely to be able to recall totemic All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw to the fray after his recovery from a foot injury.
"It's still not quite 100 percent but it's certainly a lot better than it was last time I played. Having those couple of weeks off was the right thing to do," flanker McCaw told Fairfax media at Nelson airport on Sunday.
"They'll be hurting from what happened that first time, they've had a week off to freshen up, and we've just got to make sure we meet their physicality. That's what we did last time and how we got on top."
The Reds also enjoyed beating their semi-final opponents in the regular season, running out 37-31 winners in a top-of-the-table clash in Brisbane in mid-May.
The Blues then went on to lose their next three matches to plummet down the standings before recovering to reach the playoffs and then beating the injury-ravaged Waratahs 26-13 at Eden Park last Friday.
Although the Reds' backline talent, spearheaded by halfbacks Will Genia and Quade Cooper, remain their likely match-winnners, McKenzie has added a competitive pack and teak-tough defence this year.
Blues coach Pat Lam, who may regret decrying all-Australian Super rugby as "schoolboy stuff" compared to the "war" of New Zealand encounters, is confident his team will be well prepared.
"The Reds are the top team and we came up short last time we were there so it's important we have good preparation for this game," he said. "The excitement of playoff rugby is big and we're looking forward to it."
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, whose five titles with the Crusaders make him the most successful coach in the competition's history, is, however, expecting a Reds-Stormers final in Brisbane on July 9.
"The Stormers are well placed as the Reds are to win it," Deans said. "Those two sides have the best opportunity to win ... there's no doubt the fact they don't have to travel is significant. No side has ever travelled to Africa and back and won."