Former NSW captain Phil Waugh says the Waratahs pack can "dominate" the Crusaders in the crucial forward battle, if their mental game is spot on.
Waugh, the state's most-capped player, rejected speculation from sections of the New Zealand media that the seven-time Super Rugby champions would have the Waratahs on toast at set-pieces in Saturday's final at ANZ Stadium.
The 136-cap Waratah, who wore the No.7 jersey in the 2005 and 2008 title deciding losses to the Crusaders, said there were times this season that teams had exploited an inconsistent NSW scrum or lineout, but the pack had proved time and again they had the goods in pivotal moments.
"I think they'll be looking to dominate rather than be level with the Crusaders," Waugh said.
"If you talk about the scrum, those lapses are more mental lapses than lapses in ability, and eliminating them is going to be critical.
"In saying that, the Waratahs scrum has turned it on at critical points in seriously big games to change the momentum of games, and that's why I think it's mental more than anything."
One such moment came in last Saturday's semifinal, during a 25-minute period of Brumbies attack in the Waratahs' red zone.
For the first time in at least three seasons, a scrum penalty to NSW drew wild cheers from the Allianz Stadium crowd.
NSW coach Michael Cheika will rightly expect the Crusaders not to eschew opportunities to kick for goal as the Brumbies did last weekend.
But Waugh said the Waratahs pack was good enough to starve opponents of a choice.
"They're world class players and it's just a matter of standing up against an opposition that is also world class," he said.
"Those big moments in games matter, but it's important that when there are seemingly less important moments in other parts of the field, that the application stays consistent."
Waugh rated Richie McCaw as the most influential element in the Crusaders' game. He speaks from experience, having played opposite the All Blacks captain in both previous finals.
"Richie McCaw is an immense person, not just an immense footballer; and the impact he has on the game - even if he's not playing at his best - is significant," he said.
"The confidence he gives everyone else in his team when he's on the field (should not) be underrated."
At the other end of the spectrum, Waugh said young gun Will Skelton was a secret weapon for NSW.
Where a second-rower in just his second year of professional rugby might present a vulnerability to a side as well-drilled as the Crusaders, Waugh saw a competitive edge.
"I think freshness and innocence lifts on occasions like this," he said.
"This is a massive opportunity for Will, in his second year in the game, to have a home final. His impact on the game since coming into it has been immense and, in a lot of ways, his belief in his own ability is what has got him to the heights he's hit so far."
But there are basics they will have to get right. The Waratahs boast the second-lowest scrum success rate in the competition but have maintained they are happy enough to win the majority of battles on their own ball.
The NSW lineout was better against the Brumbies but still far from perfect. Against a Sam Whitelock-led Crusaders set-piece, the third best in the competition, the Waratahs may suffer from too many touch-finders if they are forced to kick from hand.
"I have been thoroughly impressed with the way the Waratahs have handled every challenge that's come their way this year," Waugh said.
"Certainly, the Crusaders have a lot of experience in big games and they know how important the psychological edge is and they will be trying to exploit that.
"But given the way the Waratahs have responded to challenges throughout the year, I think they'll be excited about that challenge."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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