Waratahs vs. Crusaders: 5 Key Battles for Super Rugby Final
The Waratahs and the Crusaders will clash at ANZ Stadium on Saturday in a bid to be crowned 2014 Super Rugby champions, with two of this year's most star-studded line-ups fully deserving of their final berths.
And with such an array of talent on display, a number of head-to-head collisions stand to have a particular impact on proceedings, with giants of New Zealand, Australia and beyond ready to clash in what promises to be a classic encounter.
In the end, it will inevitably be the superior team that wins, but any machine is, of course, the sum of its parts, and we break down those one-on-one battles that will be of a special interest in Sydney.
1. Israel Folau vs. Israel Dagg
"Israel" is the name to watch out for on Saturday as the Waratahs' Folau and Dagg of the Crusaders prepare for a head-to-head of massive proportions.
Todd Blackadder will have been pleased to see his No. 15 coming into improved form toward the end of the campaign, arguably the world's most balanced player in his position when at his best.
However, 2014 Super Rugby try leader Folau has shown stellar, albeit at-times inconsistent form as an unstoppable force when he's in full flow, and he will seek to revive his very best at the most pivotal point in his campaign.
SA Rugby Mag highlights this battle as being the most essential of the entire fixture:
With the likes of Bernard Foley, Colin Slade, Kurtley Beale and Dan Carter on the field, there's a number of talents who have the ability to probe their opponents' defence with pinpoint accuracy.
However, that's one particular area where Dagg might edge this battle, showing against the Sharks last week just how capable he is of putting his opposite number under intense pressure, not to mention gifting the Crusaders ample territory.
As well as coming from deep, these two are likely to be highly involved in matters as second and third receivers, making for an intriguing running battle, too, that will test both fullbacks' defensive nuances.
2. Michael Hooper vs. Matt Todd
Michael Hooper has been a terrific leader throughout the Waratahs' run to this year's final, but Matt Todd is a similar quantity in Blackadder's line-up, albeit perhaps more of a sleuth than a powerhouse in the way he goes about his business.
In a way, the Tahs' openside may be glad that it's not Richie McCaw he's coming up against this weekend. But Todd is a breakdown brawler in his own right, and he will be hoping to limit that yardage that Hooper so often likes to test around the fringes.
One would argue that the Wallabies' captain is the more devastating attacker of the pair, but Todd has shown magnificent precision in finding his scoring form, scoring all three of his 2014 tries in the Crusaders' last two games.
McCaw and Stephen Hoiles will be of major significance in this battle, too, as the contest of the loose forwards will rest greatly on who produces the best partnership performance in hitting their points of contact in numbers.
3. Alofa Alofa vs. Nemani Nadolo
Having each scored in their respective semi-final fixtures, Alofa Alofa and Nemani Nadolo are a couple of in-form flyers poised to duel in a matchup between differing skill sets.
The Waratahs' wing is no shrinking violet, but with his Crusaders enemy boasting a 20 kilogram-plus weight advantage, utilising an up-front tactic may be out of the question for Alofa, giving Nadolo a head-start on matters.
It's, of course, something the Fijian will have become used to, and Nadolo isn't without his own defensive vulnerabilities, but considering how quick he has the potential to be, there aren't too many physical advantages evident for Alofa.
It may be the case, then, that high ball and playing through the boot will be Foley's main method in optimising Alofa's pace, the Auckland-born speedster hoping to latch onto as much as he can in the presence of a domineering threat.
4. Wycliff Palu vs. Kieran Read
Both of these tremor-inducing behemoths can count themselves as being in the debate to determine the world's best No. 8, but this weekend will help in establishing a victor on current form between Kieran Read and Wycliff Palu.
Read's try against the Sharks last Saturday was a throwback to the free-handed and agile Goliath seen throughout much of 2013, showing that injury setbacks and illness may finally be behind him.
This pair will of major significance at the scrum and line-out, but let's face it, fans will be hoping to see as many head-to-head collisions as possible between Read and Palu in the loose.
Palu's defensive contributions in particular have stood out toward the end of the campaign, with Read perhaps still struggling to maintain pace from the first minute to the last.
It's for that reason that the Waratahs' mauler may look to take advantage late on, but expect to see a lot of these two lining up in the first receiver channels as they hope to assert their substantial frames on the fixture.
5. Kurtley Beale vs. Dan Carter
Carter has shown no signs of distress in adapting once again to his less familiar position of inside centre, the transition made all the simpler thanks to the sacrifice of his team-mates.
Against the Sharks, Kieron Fonotia would regularly act as an option, stepping off his wing into the channels in order to free up that much more time for Carter to collect himself and make decisions in the back line, and it's then that the tactician is at his most ruthless.
Beale is more of a flash-in-the-pan substance, shown by his excellent "daylight robbery" score against the Brumbies last Saturday, but it's up for debate how the Wallaby will react on the biggest Super Rugby stage of all.
Carter, the pragmatic and consistent playmaker who has so often thrived on this grand occasion, fighting against Beale, the enigmatic maestro capable of superb skill—either through his own means or in setting up others, depending on which version of him it is that turns up.