Reds coach Ewen McKenzie wants Queensland to strike a blow for the much-maligned Australian conference by upsetting the vengeance-seeking Crusaders in Sunday’s Super Rugby grand final rematch.
Australia is facing the highly likely prospect of suppling just one side to the six-team play-offs as the Brumbies are the only franchise in touch with the New Zealand and South African pace-setters.
Most pundits have written off local teams as legitimate title contenders with a lack of playing depth across the country, as well as the Wallabies’ extra long 2011 campaign, identified as reasons for disappointing results.
But McKenzie said the Reds – sitting third in the national conference, six points behind the Brumbies (31) and 14 behind the Chiefs (39) – would relish the chance to change opinions in Christchurch.
“As much as the Australian conference is being criticised by people around the place, it would be nice for us, from an Australian conference point of view, to make a dent in the Kiwi teams’ aspirations and also promote (Australian) fortunes,” he told AAP.
“The (23-11 victory over the Blues) in Eden Park was important and, if we could jag a win in Christchurch and then take on the Chiefs, we can make a big indent on the competition.
“People have consigned us to history already so we’re looking forward to having a say about that.”
McKenzie felt Queensland “turned the corner” following last Friday’s drought-breaking win at Eden Park but he knows Sunday’s clash with the resurgent Crusaders, third in the Kiwi conference on 33 points, is a major litmus test.
“It makes this game very important,” he said. “A win here for either side makes a difference, and we’ve got the Chiefs the week after.
“The good thing for us is we’ve got a good record against both these teams.”
Queensland have won their past three fixtures against the Crusaders, including an 18-13 triumph in last year’s decider, plus two trials, but all were in Queensland.
Crusaders prop Ben Franks has spoken about the grief of being on the receiving end of the Suncorp Stadium faithful following the 2011 final defeat, and being stirred up to exact revenge.
It’s a feeling McKenzie knows well after watching the Crusaders celebrate three finals wins over sides he’s been associated with in 2000, 2005 and 2008.
“I’ve done that three times against them so I don’t feel any sympathy,” he said. “We’ve had a good rivalry and it should be an exciting game.”
McKenzie will name his team on Thursday morning with Wallabies hooker Saia Faingaa set to return from an ankle injury on the bench, while his twin Anthony might be promoted to start in the centres opposite the red-hot Robbie Fruean.
“We haven’t got all our players back yet but you can certainly feel the mood lifting in the group,” he said. “We’ve bottomed out and we’re coming back up again – that’s what it feels like.”