Super Rugby final a battle of contrasting teams

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 14:07 02/08/2014
Crusaders
Getty

BUSINESS TIME: The Crusaders hold a team talk during a practice session in Sydney ahead of tonight's Super Rugby final against the Waratahs.

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The drought is broken or a dry spell continues - that forecast is bound to eventuate in an otherwise intriguing Super Rugby final between Australia's reborn NSW Waratahs and a Crusaders side intent on resurrecting their title-winning reputation tonight.

In what shapes as the tantalising precursor to the Rugby Championship opener at the same venue on August 16, Sydney's ANZ Stadium hosts a trans-Tasman encounter where recent Bledisloe Cup history is not necessarily a reliable form guide.

The Crusaders, particularly coach Todd Blackadder, would probably prefer to note the significance of their third championship, the Super 12 final victory in a frigid Canberra in 2000 - still the only incidence of a team winning a title on foreign soil.

Blackadder was the captain that night against a Brumbies team that topped the table and had the added advantage of winning in Christchurch in the last round of the regular season - yet the Crusaders achieved a yet to be equalled three-peat by a solitary point.

Becoming the first Super Rugby-winning player to coach his team to a final is among the incentives for the laid-back former lock, another is the Crusaders' eighth crown and will ease some pressure given he has presided over the franchise's longest timespan without the trophy.

Blackadder's coaching reputation since Robbie Deans was given a fitting send-off to the Wallabies at the end of 2008 has diminished incrementally with five previous rosters being unable to either get past the semifinal stage - or in Brisbane three years ago, prevail in the decider.

Although he is contracted until the end of 2016, Blackadder's job security will be enhanced if a team with only one player in the run-on side without test experience - wing Kieron Fonotia - can prevent the Waratahs from joining the Brumbies and Reds as Australian Super Rugby winners.

Blackadder was reluctant to focus on his record, or personal satisfaction that would be generated by Kieran Read lifting the Super 15 version of the silverware for the first time.

"I haven't really thought about that for myself. I just really want to win this for the organisation, for the unconditional support we have had out there.

"For all the regions - that means more to me than just for myself - and for the players who have put a hell of a lot of work into this campaign,'' he said, before leaving Christchurch.

There are parallels with the task Blackadder's team faced in the Australian capital 14 years ago - the Brumbies, like the Waratahs, had the best attacking and defensive stats in the competition and were also favourites to win the championship for the first time.

That night the Crusaders were reliant on an individual try from a future All Black No.8, Ron Cribb, a last-ditch penalty to a cramping Andrew Mehrtens, a committed defensive effort and Stirling Mortlock's wayward boot.

Mehrtens' successor Dan Carter and Read, the game's premier No.8, are again likely to play pivotal roles, alongside Richie McCaw who, despite having already been involved in four title successes, is enthused by the opportunity to atone for a shattering loss at Suncorp Stadium in 2011.

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"From a personal point of view I don't know how many more times you get to have a go at this," he said, mindful the All Blacks' defence of the World Cup takes precedence next year.

McCaw (injury), Read (concussion) and Carter (sabbatical) have all had limited involvement this season but crucially they have all been key contributors as the Crusaders found their customary momentum to qualify for their 11th final.

Of course while that trio offer an intimidating presence, the remainder of the Crusaders pack must also aim up in unison at the set piece where the Waratahs have been fragile since lineout caller Dave Dennis succumbed to a knee injury.

The Reds and Brumbies profited by anticipating Tatafu Polota-Nau's targets in successive weeks and the Crusaders are also well equipped to disrupt the opposition throw through Dominic Bird, Sam Whitelock and Read.

An All Black front row including France-bound veteran Corey Flynn can also be expected to handle their Wallaby counterparts at scrum time while McCaw and Matt Todd will make life difficult for Michael Hooper.

"Richie's obviously class there, Matt Todd's great. It's going to be a tough night if we let them be really good there at the breakdown," said the Waratahs and Wallabies captain Michael Hooper.

While the Crusaders eight should shade their opponents and despite Carter's return to action - and the canny acquisition of giant Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo - the Waratahs back line is brimming with flair.

Israel Folau, the competition's leading try-scorer, was quiet by his standards against the Brumbies but remains a potent attacking threat; a reformed Kurtley Beale is another game breaker though he is troubled by a shoulder injury.

Former Crusaders player and assistant coach Daryl Gibson reckoned the pairing of halfback Nick Phipps and first five-eighth Bernard Foley finally made the Waratahs a complete team and their match-up with Andy Ellis and Colin Slade should also have a bearing the outcome.

The Crusaders' 11-match winning sequence over the Waratahs has been well documented in the build-up but McCaw doubted the streak's relevance, likewise the Kiwis' greater experience of finals football.

"The Waratahs have certainly set the standard this year, the way they've played.

"Last weekend showed defence wins you big matches but if you can put them under pressure there's no reason why we can't be successful."

Meanwhile, Blackadder's counterpart Michael Cheika attempted to temper the expectations on his players by arguing the group was still "a work in progress".

"There's no way I'm saying yeah it's great to be in the grand final but we're still laying the foundations to put some real substance here at the Waratahs for the short term and also for the longer term," he said, insisting victory today was not the be-all and end-all.

"The benefits for me will be later. If I can sit in the grandstand in 10 years' time and watch a team playing the way with the same competitive spirit I can say I was a part of building that.

"That's more the rewards that I'm looking for."

Blackadder, conversely, cannot afford to sit back and relax any time soon.

- Stuff

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