Planet Rugby

Preview: Super Rugby Final

31st July 2014 12:23

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bernard foley dan carter crusaders waratahs

The entertainer: Bernard Foley

The Olympic Stadium will be the venue when the Waratahs meet the Crusaders as they face off for the third time on Super Rugby's biggest stage.

2014 is the third time these two have met in the final and the first since 2008, when the Crusaders won their seventh title.

That triumph though is also their most recent success, with a five-year drought following that includes defeat in the final game to the Reds in 2011.

Both times the Waratahs have made a Super Rugby Final, they have faced the Crusaders and lost by an average deficit of nine points. But both of those games were played in New Zealand, not under the eyes of Sydney's sea of blue.

Waratahs' supporters fighting off the nerves ahead of Saturday's final should feel optimistic. Their team have been both 2014's great entertainers and statistically the best side in the competition.

Most wins, biggest points difference, an 100 percent home record, most tries scored, the most try bonus points (a ridiculous 9 from their 16 matches), the best defence. It's a catalogue of accolades.

First place no longer means champions and while there is no divine correlation linking the best team in Super Rugby to automatically becoming champions, you will feel sympathetic for the 'Tahs on Saturday if victory doesn't go their way.

They however face a very real threat. Despite their bye weeks and a healthy enough lead in the Australian Conference in order to be able to tweak and fine-tune their lineout, it still remains rocky.

The absence of Dave Dennis here doesn't help given his prowess at the set-piece and leadership, but still, in a pack featuring six Wallabies including the Australian hooker and captain you'd expect a higher level of accuracy than the 75 percent produced in the semi-final.

Sam Whitelock will be licking his chops at the prospect of getting up and in the face of Tatafu Polota-Nau, attacking as part of an aerial crew that includes the versatile Kieran Read.

At times as well in the semi-final the Waratahs scrum creaked just a touch, even though Benn Robinson and Sekope Kepu have had outstanding seasons. The Crusaders' tight five from 1-5 is a classy unit and their biggest weapon against the Waratahs.

Not only do they hold the superior edge in that area but they also have to exploit it to prevent Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale from getting hands on the ball and causing their now customary chaos.

The best part about watching the 'Tahs has been seeing players perform to their highest level. Guys like Kepu, Wycliff Palu, Jacques Potgieter, Nick Phipps and Rob Horne are relatively under the radar compared to other shining lights in the squad, yet have been excellent. That's before considering the impact of Will Skelton off the bench.

Among a collection of standout contenders from the Waratahs however, Foley deserves to be Player of the Year. His arsenal runs deep, able to split the line with a burst of acceleration or time the perfect pass for the Waratahs high number of potent runners to crash onto.

Watching him in 2014 has almost been a pleasure, such has been the control he's been afforded working behind a dominant eight who pilfer possession and constantly find the metres to get behind the defence.

Michael Hooper has had the upper hand in this area for much of the year, but now faces a resurgent Richie McCaw.

The New Zealand captain's work-rate in recent weeks has confounded belief as he defies age and a battered body. McCaw isn't liked by all, he never will be, but respecting his (legal) qualities on the pitch is effortless.

Keeping the ball away from the 'Tahs and kicking smartly - something which the unit of Andy Ellis, Colin Slade, Carter and Israel Dagg all do and the Sharks did not - will keep Israel Folau quiet.

Watching a match where the Australian full-back doesn't impose his influence now feels strange, such has been his impact since crossing codes. He is not the sole reason why the Waratahs are in the final, but his contribution of 12 tries is obviously a fundamental part of their success. Folau has to shine on the big stage against a classy opponent.

The other Israel, Dagg, meanwhile has found his form again, while Carter's placement in midfield offers the Crusaders an assured partnership alongside Ryan Crotty. Nemani Nadolo, right up there with Malakai Fekitoa as the find of the year, could even pip Folau to the top try scoring mantle in Sydney.

There are simply class players all over the park, with a number of individual battles to consider ahead of not just the final but also the upcoming Bledisloe Cup.

The Crusaders have the experience, the seven titles to none, the winning record over the Waratahs going back to 2004. Yet they're still not convincing favourites. Neither side is. A hell of a battle awaits.

Ones to watch:

For Waratahs: The Sydneysiders' march to the final has coincided with the superb form of fly-half Bernard Foley. Coincidence? I think not. Consistently the best pivot throughout the entire tournament, Foley's Super Rugby form won him reward in the form of the Wallabies' number 10 jersey during their Test series whitewash against France in June. The 24-year-old's attacking skills and ability to bring out the best in his outside backs has impressed but his improved game-management has also been a key to the Waratahs' success this season. Another player, who the Crusaders must keep a close eye on is openside flanker Michael Hooper, whose game has thrived since taking over the captaincy, after regular skipper Dave Dennis was crocked through injury against the Brumbies in Round 17. Hooper's ball-winning ability, at the breakdowns, is amongst the best in the business and his battle with the Crusaders' Matt Todd and Richie McCaw could be one of the highlights of the game. Hooper, however, is also an accomplished ball-carrier and can be expected to test the visitors' defence with some strong carries.

For Crusaders: Although the Christchurch-based franchise's captain Kieran Read has not reached the heights which saw him named the 2013 IRB Player of the Year, he will still present a formidable challenge to the Waratahs. Read showed in the semi-final win over the Sharks why he is rated as the world's best number eight with a fine all-round display. Read has the uncanny ability to turn defence into attack, with a moment of brilliance, and while his back row team-mates'- McCaw and Todd - main roles are primarily to provide possession at the breakdowns, Read is one of the Crusaders' go-to men at the line-outs and as a ball-carrier. Crusaders full-back Israel Dagg has also had an up and down season but, like Read, is striking form at just the right time. Dagg's main strength is his counter-attacking ability but he is also a fine playmaker, who usually wreaks havoc when he joins the seven-time champions' back-line at pace. He also has a big boot on him and has the ability to put his side on to the front-foot with his kicks into touch.

Head to Head: The forward battle will be interesting to watch, especially the front row duel between the Crusaders' Wyatt Crockett and Waratahs counterpart Sekope Kepu. Crockett's scrummaging has always been solid while Kepu - who is a converted number eight - has come on in leaps and bounds as a scrummager this season. With Tony Woodcock battling to overcome injury, Crockett is set to wear the number one jersey for the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship and with Kepu nailing down his spot as the Wallabies' first-choice tighthead, during the recent series victory against France, this battle could be a precursor to Australia's Bledisloe Cup battle with New Zealand in Sydney on August 16.

Form: Eight wins in a row for the Waratahs take them into Saturday on a high. The Crusaders best winning streak this year has been five matches, coming after their opening two defeats to put them in control of the New Zealand Conference. Their most recent loss came against the Hurricanes on June 28, while the 'Tahs haven't lost since April. The Waratahs finished the regular season by scoring 36 more and conceding 50 fewer points than the Crusaders.

Previous Results:
2013: Crusaders won 23-22 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 37-33 in Christchurch
2011: Crusaders won 33-18 in Christchurch
2010: Crusaders won 20-13 in Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 17-13 in Christchurch

Prediction: Do the 'Tahs have one last ounce of magic left in them, or will their set-piece splutter and stop them from getting up to speed? Their pack has looked susceptible but no side has yet made they pay. The Crusaders, bursting with quality and wisdom, are the side to do it and as a result win an eighth Super Rugby title over this year's truly outstanding side, the Waratahs. We're in for a thriller. Crusaders by six.

The teams:

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Stephen Hoiles, 5 Jacques Potgieter, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tola Latu, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Jeremy Tilse, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Mitch Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbon, 23 Matt Carraro, 24 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 25 Peter Betham (two to be omitted).

Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufau, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.

Date: Saturday, August 2
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Kickoff: 19:40 local (21:40 NZT, 11:40 SAST, 10:40 BST, 09:40 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

by Ben Coles

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