Waratahs vs. Crusaders: 6 Bold Predictions for Super Rugby Final
The 2014 Super Rugby campaign comes to an end at ANZ Stadium on Saturday, where the Waratahs will be looking to build on their normal season triumph with a much more meaningful win over the Crusaders.
In a battle of first against second, the Australian hosts arrive in Sydney with their first-ever Super Rugby title in sight. In contrast, this will be familiar ground for the visitors, who are hoping to win their eighth competition crown.
The lines have been closely drawn in a fixture that sees the Waratahs as slim favourites to overturn history and add a maiden championship to their cabinet.
However, all sense of logic or context can tend to be discounted when the stakes are this high. Six bold predictions for how this season's finale will unfold are detailed ahead.
1. Open Affair Breaks 50-Point Mark
Not since 2009 has a Super Rugby final produced more than 50 points, when the Bulls emerged as 61-17 victors over the Chiefs in something of a freakish embarrassment for the New Zealanders.
Last year, the Waikato representatives came desperately close to breaking that four-season drought with a 27-22 beating of the Brumbies, but Saturday could well see the Crusaders and Waratahs go one better—and then some.
It's no odd occurrence that the two most impressive attacking outfits of 2014 have made it to the final, the 'Tahs being the most free-scoring side in the land with a grand total of 481 points netted, while Todd Blackadder's men have grabbed 445 of their own.
However, that math on its own wouldn't be enough to suggest that both sides will open up for what could easily be a tense final, especially considering how stingy these two teams were in their semi-finals last week—both sides conceding just 14 points between them.
It's not every year that the best players always make it to the final, but in Sydney on Saturday, we will genuinely see the finest crop of superstar attackers we could have hoped would make it to the final in terms of entertainment value.
The Waratahs have scored an average of 30 points per game in their 16 outings this term, with the Crusaders just below that figure at 28. It won't come as a result of one side blowing their opponent out of the water, but the 2014 final will produce a fairly even split in the points, and it's set to be a big tally, too.
2. Blackadder's Boys Undaunted by ANZ Atmosphere
The ANZ Stadium will once again cater for a Super Rugby onslaught this Saturday, as the Sydney venue prepares to welcome a tidal wave of Waratahs support.
The Crusaders will take some comfort in the knowledge that the All Blacks have a 54 percent winning ratio on their travels to the 84,000-capacity venue, but the hosts' home advantage will be evident nonetheless.
This will also be the Crusaders' second consecutive Super Rugby final in which they have been the away team, having lost to the Reds in 2011 after making their way to Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium.
However, this is still a side experienced in the ways of post-season rugby, and they'll be banking on that wisdom to get them through the occasion, a completely new matter to many within Michael Cheika's roster.
The official ANZ Stadium Twitter account showed off its own readiness for this weekend's proceedings:
Richie McCaw, in particular, will be looking to assert his authority in what could be his last opportunity to add more Super Rugby silverware to his collection, and home advantage will count for little as the visitors stake their claim on the scoreboard.
The Brumbies' 22-point total in Hamilton last year was the most scored by an away team in a Super Rugby final since 2005. The irony being that it was the Crusaders who claimed a 35-25 win over the Waratahs in Christchurch on that occasion.
We're banking on the Crusaders to eclipse that mark and register at least three tries on Saturday.
3. Set-Piece Dominance Divided Down the Middle
The scrum was the area in which many supposed the Sharks would be most competitive on their semi-final trip to Canterbury last Saturday, but the Crusaders showed their own gumption in this technical area to oust the South Africans from the competition.
The Waratahs have impressed in that area, too, and have failed to lose any of their last 30 scrum feeds in games against the Brumbies, Reds and Highlanders, winning four of the opponents' in the process.
When it comes to the line-out, Blackadder will hope to see his side pick away at Saturday's opponents just as they did the Sharks, with the likes of Sam Whitelock, Dominic Bird and Kieran Read each facing a titanic 80 minutes.
Tatafu Paloya-Nau was somewhat wasteful in his throwing against the Brumbies, and with the Crusaders in their current line-out form, we will see a lot of balls stolen at the set piece should he produce on those levels again.
The New Zealand side will far from roll over, but power over the set piece should see an equal split on Saturday, the Crusaders benefiting from the touchline, while the Waratahs take a grip on the scrum.
4. Crusaders Claim 8th Super Rugby Title, Waratahs' Wait Lingers
As has been discussed, the pain of falling into foreign territory is something the Crusaders have already experienced in a final of late, and it's not a feeling they'll want to reacquaint themselves with so soon.
It's a point that's been regurgitated throughout the team's post-season run but is nevertheless apparent—this team knows how to deliver on the biggest stage.
Read's opening try against the Sharks showed that he's coming back into his brightest form, and with Dan Carter functioning well alongside Ryan Crotty, the Waratahs duo of Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper will have a hard time finding weakness in midfield.
And that will be where a lot of this tie is decided, along with Michael Hooper's considerable task of taking on Matt Todd and Richie McCaw at the breakdown—the two Crusaders being in fine form since the latter's return to fitness.
Man for man, one might argue that there are areas of the pitch where the Waratahs have an upper hand, but in terms of a team producing their finest form at the ANZ Stadium on Saturday, Crusaders will come out shining.
5. Nemani Nadolo Leapfrogs Israel Folau for Top Tryscorer Honours
And one talisman in particular who the Waratahs will be hard-pressed to restrain is in-form Fijian flyer Nemani Nadolo, who took his 2014 try tally to 11 with a score against the Sharks last week.
That puts the winger in second place for this season's try standings, Israel Folau being the only player above him in those terms with 12, hoping to extend his own record in Sydney.
However, whereas the Waratahs' fullback ace hasn't crossed the whitewash since Round 18, Nadolo has been in free-scoring form since returning from international duty, bagging four in his last three games.
With talk of a potential return to rugby league in the ether, Folau may have his concentration blurred of late, whereas Nadolo is showing no signs of deviation and is completely focused on success for his Super Rugby side.
In the final, we're backing the Crusaders monolith to not only draw level with Folau, but to shut out his individual foe entirely, scoring two or more to take the top tryscorer title as his own.
6. Israel Dagg Takes Home Man of the Match Award
The 2014 campaign hasn't been a highlight reel of the spectacular variety that may have been expected after Israel Dagg enjoyed a fine 2013 on the international stage.
However, his momentum is coming to a head at the right moment, and the fullback's semi-final outing against Jake White's Sharks depicted what a calming presence he has the ability to be.
Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau will all be looking to test the Crusaders' No. 15 when the ball goes over the back line, but Dagg's sense of positioning makes him as tough an obstacle to outsmart on his day as any other.
With some superb assets among his fellow backs, the All Black also has a superb chance to construct for those around him, not to mention posing a serious threat on the Waratahs defence himself when stepping into Carter's inside shoulder.
Those aforementioned kicking figures may make for a difficult day's work, but Dagg is also a character of a resolve who can absorb that pressure, before unleashing it with much more advantageous prospects.
Should Dagg combine his mastery of pitch awareness with some more elegant offensive impetus, it could be a season's crescendo to remember, with Man of the Match honours in tow.