This is it. Since the first ball was kicked off in February, we have been treated to some special rugby. It is only fitting that the top two teams face off in the final – and a little side note to add is that these side haven’t faced each other since May 2013, when the Canterbury Crusaders squeaked past the New South Wales Waratahs by one point at AMI Stadium.
These are also not the same teams that locked horns 15 months ago. The Waratahs boast 11 current Wallabies in their ranks, while the Crusaders have eight All Blacks in their locker room.
Each team has peaked at the right moment and secured their home semi-finals, which were both won with relative ease. The first semi-final was the AMI Stadium clash between the Christchurch-based Crusader and the Sharks. Everyone had written off the Sharks in the lead-up and Jake White had made his excuses even before taking to the practice fields. There was no hope for the Sharks and this was evident after 10 minutes of play. The Sharks stuck to their plan of hoofing the ball downfield, right down the throats of the Crusaders’ back-three, and were hammered by effective counterattacks and slick, precision rugby. The Crusaders had a plan to link with the forwards and used Kieran Read to great effect out wide. This was almost a carbon copy of what the All Blacks do, drawing in the defence out wide and offloading to the man on the inside; this time it was the brutal runs of Read that initially opened up the defence.
The Sharks had no answer and were dismantled from the get-go. The result was assured by halftime and all the Crusaders had to do was play rugby while the Sharks lost concentration – and the ability to play a game at the same level as their opposition. It was a result that almost everyone had predicted.
A similar consensus was shared prior to the Waratahs and Brumbies clash. Even though the odds were slightly tighter, the predictions favoured the men from Sydney. The Waratahs have shown that they can score tries and blow the opposition off the park, but this time it was different as the Brumbies put the pressure on with direct attacking and running rugby, forcing the minor premiers to hunker down and stonewall on defence. The Waratahs were equal, if not better, to the task of defending. In the third minute, the Brumbies made a passing error and immediately the home team gathered the ball and ran in a 60-metre try.
The muddy and soft ground didn’t promote the expansive rugby that we are used to seeing from the ‘Tahs, but this didn’t stop them from trying. The interesting thing is that all of their tries came from pressure defence and quality counterattack. This also sounded a warning shot to the Crusaders, who like to do the same; the Waratahs seem to do it better this season.
Victory was carved in stone in the 75th minute with Bernard Foley going over for the try from a counterattack move originating inside the Waratahs’ 22-metre line, highlighted by the giant Will Skelton’s run through defenders and a beautiful offload to the storming Foley. This one period of play sums up the Waratahs’ season.
With all this said and done, there is still the matter of the final. This match-up is making me salivate and Saturday cannot come quick enough. The Waratahs have been awarded their first ever home final and the indications are that the attendance will top 55,000, with a Super Rugby attendance record a distinct possibility. Anyone that passes up the opportunity for tickets is a fool – this is one of the biggest finals in recent history. Not to take anything away from previous encounters, but this final feels like history in the making.
Seven-time champions Canterbury take on the reformed and reconstructed Waratahs. The Crusaders play a familiar and winning brand of rugby, compared to the new and exciting Waratahs style. Coach Todd Blackadder has been at the helm for the Crusaders for six years without a winner’s medal. He has had a few excellent chances, but his team his tripped at the last hurdle. Michael Cheika has been in charge of the Waratahs for two years and has turned a team with potential into a serious world-beater.
Cheika has coached winning teams before, with Leinster’s Heineken Cup win a highlight of his time in Europe. He now has a chance to win the Southern Hemisphere’s premier club trophy. Cheika has the experience of winning and losing big games and knows what it takes to climb the highest summits in the sport. Blackadder has been part of the All Blacks family as a player and captain; his first coaching gig was to take over from his former mentor, Robbie Deans, at the Crusaders. He hasn’t won anything with them except a conference trophy, which is no substitute for the Super Rugby crown.
There are some big individual match-ups, starting up front with the heavy men. The Waratahs have already named their side for the final, which, unsurprisingly, is unchanged from the semi-final. The Crusaders are still yet to announce their line-up, but we can assume that they will name a similar 23 to the one that took on the Sharks.
The front-rows are set for a colossal battle, with Benn Robinson, Tatafu Polota Nau, Sekope Kepu scrumming down against Wyatt Crockett, Corey Flynn and Owen Franks. All six men have represented their respective nations with a fair tally of Test caps against their names. The scrums are evenly matched in the tight five, but the Waratahs have a colossus waiting on the bench in the form of Will Skelton. Starting in the second-row is the ever-impressive Jacques Potgieter and Kane Douglas. Douglas has been impressive in the air, but this Saturday he goes up against Whitelock and Bird.
With the scrums evenly matched, the line-outs will be a set piece that both teams can compete at. I would give the edge to the Crusaders in the air as Whitelock has been in good form above his lifters and Flynn has been throwing the ball as accurate as a professional pub darts player. It will be hard for the Waratahs to challenge for the opposition ball, but they’ll still compete and might steal one or two.
The battle on the deck is where the mouth waters and the heart pounds. The resilient and formidable veteran Richie McCaw is up against the young and hungry skipper Michael Hooper, each having the ability to force key turnovers and be a nuisance in the rucks. Hooper shows a bit more speed in the open but McCaw has the smarts and 100-plus Test caps under his belt. This type of rivalry is the classic master and student showdown. Hooper may beat McCaw to the ball, but the craftiness McCaw cannot be underestimated. It’s a tight battle on the ground that can swing on the rest of the loose trio backing these brilliant No.7s.
Read is up against the dynamic Wycliff Palu, with both No.8s able to run hard at the line and create the gaps for offloads. Although Palu is big and shows his strength in the tackle, Read has been there and done it all and has the edge over Palu in open play. If Read plays like he did against the Sharks, Palu might not be able to keep up. Stephen Hoiles is facing off against Matt Todd on the blindside. Both workers have been unsung heroes in their respective teams, but both are able to get into the battles and come up trumps. Evenly matched ability-wise, these two look certain to form their own personal battle in the final.
The halfbacks of each team are in peak form this year. Andy Ellis and Nick Phipps may have had staggered playing histories but they are up for the fight. Ellis has the brain to break a game open with his vision for gaps and passing at the right moment, while Phipps has shown that he is a master sniper at close quarters. Phipps could have the edge over Ellis if he sticks to his natural game, but Ellis could outfox Phipps with continued pressure.
The backlines in each side is where the magic happens, with the Crusaders and Waratahs both possessing the strike-power to score from almost anywhere on the field. Flyhalf Bernard Foley has given the Australian rugby public a lot to think about, with his stellar form being rewarded with a Wallabies call-up. He will be up against Colin Slade or Dan Carter. No matter which Cantabrian pulls on the No.10, Foley will have a huge challenge in his channel. Carter has shown his hunger since returning from his sabbatical and Slade has had a form season. Even though Foley is battle-hardened, he will be up against it come this Saturday. This is the area that the Crusaders can create problems for the Waratahs, as their playmakers’ skill and experience puts them alongside the best in the world.
The midfield pairing for each team is where the big decisions are truly made. Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper have played alongside each other to the extent that they know what the other will do before they do it. They understand each others’ games and play off each other to break the defensive line and create space on the outside. Ryan Crotty – who will be paired up with Carter or Slade – is primed for this match-up though, regardless of who his partner may be – he didn’t get his All Black call-up through fluke. He has been one of the form centres this season and is a power runner with the vision to spot a gap and exploit it. The Waratahs may have the Crusaders covered in this department, however, with Ashley-Cooper and Beale the in-form pair out of both teams.
The trio of speedsters out wide is where the points can come from. NSW fullback Israel Folau is the current top try-scorer, but he is only one ahead of Canterbury’s Fijian wing monster Nemani Nadolo. Both men are fast, have the skill to beat a man one-on-one and can create offload opportunities. Folau and Nadolo also look for work in their pursuit of the try-line. Even though Folau plays at the back and Nadolo out wide, they will always find themselves at the right place at the right time.
Waratahs wingers Rob Horne and Alofa Alofa have been the men that flirt with the touchline but can work their way infield to create an overlap and an extra body for the defenders to watch. The same can be said for Canterbury fullback Israel Dagg and winger Kieron Fonotia. Dagg has been a counterattacking force at the back and isn’t afraid to be challenged in the air, but he will be peppered with the high ball often when in close, for Folau or Beale to challenge. If either team looks for the high ball, the two fullbacks are sure to be at the apex of the collision up high. Folau might hold a few more points over Dagg in the air with his AFL experience, but Dagg has been known to sacrifice his body to secure a high ball.
The players coming off the bench could provide a significant momentum shift for the respective teams. Each side has a strike and impact player on the bench, and this is the game where the bench will be emptied to keep the team fresh. Normally the use of bench players is unpredictable as it depends on the game situation, but I see NSW lock Will Skelton and Canterbury loose forward Jordan Taufua as the players capable of making a potential momentum swing.
This match was one that we had been hoping for and one that we’ve got. It ticks all the right boxes for what a final is meant to be, with the No.1 and No.2 teams slogging it out to determine a winner. It’s a historic match, with the Waratahs hosting their first final and due to the fact that these two haven’t played each other in 2014. They have been the form teams over the back half of the season and deserve to be in the final.
There is no more left to play except the last 80 minutes of the 2014 Super Rugby season at ANZ Stadium. The Waratahs may not have defeated the Crusaders in the past decade but this NSW team is a different beast. After 19 years of waiting, this torturous cycle of hope and loss is set to end in Sydney. The Waratahs hold an advantage over the Crusaders backed up by a rabid home crowd.
The betting odds are closer than the semi-finals, but the Waratahs are distinct favourites for the win according to the punters. The predictions are clear and after almost two decades the Waratahs are set to lift the trophy in an epic clash that can be compared to the titanic battles that movies are made of.
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