Mehrtens: Waratahs are not beating own drum

ANDREW MEHRTENS
Last updated 05:00 29/07/2014
Michael Cheika
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TURING THINGS AROUND: Waratahs coach Michael Cheika.

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OPINION: There's something different about these Waratahs, who stand between the Crusaders and their eighth Super Rugby title, and I think I've worked out what it is.

They've finally stopped telling everyone how good they are; and just set about proving it on the field.

Over the years the drums would always get beaten whenever the Waratahs had a big pre-season or early season, and it was so often just noise. Inevitably they'd fail to live up to their own hype. This year, conversely, they've done the most when they've said the least. They've won their first minor premiership, and on Saturday host their first final; but there's been less noise out of Sydney than almost any other year.

Perhaps there's a lesson in that somewhere.

The Tahs' success has been a reflection on the way they've gone about their business under the astute guidance of Michael Cheika and our own Daryl Gibson.

I've been lucky enough to get a first-hand glimpse at their culture and it's impressive. They're humble, eager to learn and there's a real work ethic there.

The message from on top is about keeping feet on the ground, staying real, working hard, and taking it week to week. They've got the headline acts, but there are no "superstars" in their group.

It reminds me how much I respect Gibson. The way he approaches things is not a million miles from the Wayne Smith approach. This change in attitude hit home when I visited the Waratahs' changing-room after their big win over the Chiefs in New Plymouth. Gibbo told me then they viewed the Chiefs as the hardest-working team in the competition, and their focus had been to outwork the workhorses.

It was all about attitude.

At the time I thought "what a wonderful way to approach the game". It encapsulated how far they'd come from their days as Hoorah Henrys.

Sure, you can be impressed by their level of talent, slick combinations, attacking intent and size and grunt up front. But that key mindset change sums up why they've taken that next step.

That gritty realism and down-to-earth attitude has been a hallmark of the Crusaders. What is it they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

I don't think you can overplay the Gibson influence. He's brought clarity, simplicity, confidence and encouragement to the backline. There's nothing complicated about what they do - it's just executed well.

There's been talk about the Crusaders forcing Gibson out, but I don't think it's a bad thing to get experience overseas in a quality setup. At heart he's still a New Zealander and I'm sure he'll return when the time is right.

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The Waratahs have benefited from winning quality front-foot ball, and having well established combinations. Their game is based around simplicity, and relies on achieving quick ball.

But their challenge goes up a level now. There's no way the Crusaders will give them the go-forward in the tackle that others have.

When the Crusaders have sensed a challenge and lifted, their difference in intensity has been marked. We saw it against the Brumbies and the Highlanders in the regular season, and against the Sharks at the weekend.

Their intensity at the breakdown and focus on physical dominance flows on to the attack. It means they're not feeling their way round the field, just flying on to it and playing with spontaneity.

The Crusaders look to be moving back towards their ruthless best.

The kicking game was excellent against the Sharks - not just the long grass-finders, but also in the air with a good chase. That's one of the ways to nullify Israel Folau.

Their scrum blunted the Sharks where they're strongest and the physical presence at the breakdown was immense. As impressive as Richie McCaw and Kieran Read were round the park, it's the workrate of a Matt Todd that allows them the freedom to get involved.

I'm not a huge fan of not playing guys in their best positions, but in this instance Todd Blackadder has got it right with McCaw and Dan Carter because at this time of the year it's about getting the best guys on the field.

And right now the Crusaders' best guys might just be that little bit better than the Waratahs'.

- Stuff

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