Sydney is the venue for this weekend's Super 15 final between the Waratahs and the Crusaders – Rugby World analyses the two teams
RARITY IS a concept that is rapidly diminishing in professional rugby. First off, a global calendar is pretty much already here. Dean Ryan’s Worcester Warriors, relegated from the Aviva Premiership last season, began their pre-season programme for 2014-15 on 9 June – precisely five days after the conclusion of the 2013-14 Championship campaign.
Thanks to an all-consuming television schedule, spectators with satellite subscriptions can gorge themselves continuously on coverage from across the world. Dedicated couch potatoes easily rack up 100 games in a year. Without any extra-time, that is 8,000 minutes – five-and-a-half days. And you get to see just about every player on the planet.
Of course World Cups and Lions tours – plus Commonwealth Games and soon Olympics for sevens – earn heightened mystique and intrigue because they remain four years apart. But in domestic terms, we are spoilt.
That is just one reason why tomorrow’s Super 15 final between the Waratahs and the Crusaders is an enthralling prospect. By a quirk of the conference-based fixture list, this pair of prestigious heavyweights did not meet once over the regular season, making their way to the decider in very different ways.
Six tries and a 43-21 defeat of Western Force propelled the Waratahs towards the top of the tree early on. That’s where the Sydneysiders stayed too, ending 16 rounds at the summit with a comfortable lead built on perfect home form.
Although the Crusaders finished second, they endured a rather more meandering journey. Only a stuttering 14-13 win over the Stormers prevented a trio of losses from the first three matches and performances remained clunky until July. Then, as you would expect of seven-time champions, things clicked into place. Last week’s Kieran Read-inspired demolition of an abject Sharks outfit means the Cantabrians now possess significant momentum.
The last two encounters between these trans-Tasman rivals have yielded an aggregate score of 60-55, the Crusaders getting the better of two tight, high-scoring tussles. As Kiwi coach Todd Blackadder intimated on Wednesday, that omen has been aided by a curious venue change from the Waratahs, who have opted to play at the 83,500-seater ANZ Stadium rather than Sydney Football Stadium – the setting of so much success this year. However, there are too many exceptional individuals on show for mind games to matter.
Quality runs deep through each match-day 23, starting at the back with two excellent Israels. There is Dagg of the Crusaders, hitting hot-stepping form nicely. Then there is Folau of the Waratahs, quiet against the Brumbies in the semi but keen to cap a staggering season. A record 12 tries is the headline statistic, but 60 broken tackles, 44 offloads and 13 line breaks provides a more appropriate indicator of the havoc he has caused.
Behemoth wing Nemani Nadolo is the Crusaders’ wildcard wrecking-ball, capable of similar destruction. Indeed, the respective back-lines contain counter-points at every turn. Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ryan Crotty are head-down hard-workers, while Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley face Andy Ellis and Colin Slade in a skirmish of unfussy half-backs. Kurtley Beale and Dan Carter offer a touch of box-office magic to a very watchable affair.
Up front, these sides are very well balanced. Neither lack sleight of hand or spikiness. While Crusaders hold an edge at set-piece, Will Skelton – lurking conspicuously on the bench – could sabotage such an advantage very quickly. The back-row match-up pits powerful Wycliff Palu against outrageous Read, but a more pivotal duel sees two contrasting stars in the search for silverware.
First comes Michael Hooper, an all-action throwback who influences in every department – carrying, pilfering possession and smashing runners with relish. It is very difficult to remember that the surf-styled seven is still only 22 years old.
Richie McCaw will be wearing six but sniffing around like the awesome openside he is. If age is slowing him slightly, the trademark tenacity is growing and he remains very much the master to Hooper’s apprentice. Matt Todd is on hand to nullify the young Wallaby’s effect on the breakdown too, something England managed at Twickenham last November. Prime turnover merchant Marcell Coetzee didn’t get a sniff in Christchurch in the semi-final, so the Waratahs’ talisman must be brilliant in order to impact the ruck at all.
What this all amounts to is a special evening to decide the southern hemisphere’s keynote franchise competition. Fatefully kept apart all year, two outstanding teams are released from the traps and into battle. Expect Super Rugby to reinforce its standing as a magnetic product again. That’s what keeps us coming back for more.
Waratahs v Crusaders, 10.40am BST, Live on Sky Sports 1
Don’t miss our preview of this season’s Rugby Championship in the September issue of Rugby World, on sale Tuesday 5 August.