A rapidly rising sense of confidence in Australian rugby is likely to be manifested in Saturday's all-Aussie Super Rugby semi-final.
A rapidly rising sense of confidence in Australian rugby is likely to be manifested in Saturday's Super Rugby semi-final between the Waratahs and Brumbies.
Recent years have been lean for the Wallabies: by next year's tournament it will have been 16 years since they won a World Cup, 12 years since they took the Bledisloe Cup from the All Blacks and they have only won the Rugby Championships or Tri-Nations once in 13 years.
Australian teams have won the Super Rugby title only three times since the tournament's inception in 1996 and at times have seemed lacking in depth, their talent diluted among five teams.
But the form of the Waratahs and Brumbies this season has produced a strong sense that Australian rugby is on an upswing and the Wallabies have been infected by that sense of confidence as they head toward this season's Rugby Championships.
The Waratahs have never won a Super Rugby title and that failure has become an almost intolerable irritant to their players, their fans and to their strong sense of state pride. The Brumbies won the crown in 2001 and 2004, largely propelled to those victories by then fly-half and current head coach Stephen Larkham.
The rivalry between the two neighboring states has grown steadily over the years and Larkham suggested this week it at least equaled and has possibly outgrown the antipathy between New South Wales and Queensland.
The teams have played 24 times in Super Rugby matches with the Waratahs winning 13 matches and the Brumbies 11. The Waratahs will go into Saturday's match at Sydney as the favorites, having finished in first place with 12 wins from 16 games during the regular season and after beating the Brumbies 39-8 when the teams last met only a month ago.
That defeat put the Brumbies on the verge of missing the playoffs but they revived strongly to beat the Western Force 37-25 in a showdown for a playoff berth, then beat defending champions the Chiefs 32-30 to reach the semifinals.
They now stand only one match away from their second-straight appearance in a Super Rugby final after last year's 27-22 loss to the Chiefs. They are separated from that objective by 80 minutes of rugby against their most bitter foe.
“Being a Canberra it's always been about playing the Waratahs or NSW before they were the Waratahs,” said Larkham.
“That was always a grudge match as a rugby union player in Canberra and it is no different now.”
The teams sport some of the most exciting talent in Australian rugby: the Waratahs have the brilliant Wallabies full-back Israel Folau – top try scorer in Super Rugby this season with 12 – and the Waratahs have Fiji-born wing Henry Speight, who has just broken into the Australian squad.
Head coach Michael Cheika is credited with leading the Waratahs' revival this season but believes the Brumbies are a formidable obstacle to his team's title ambitions.
“Their key players are back, they've got just as many international players as we have and they've got an excellent record in the last two or three seasons,” he said.
“It's going to be a really good match.”