Sydney – The New South Wales Waratahs will attempt to rewrite a long history of under-performance and failed ambition when they meet the Crusaders on Saturday in the Super Rugby final.
History, experience and resilience under pressure are key factors in finals and represent the major differences between the finalists.
The Crusaders have been to the final 10 times, have won it on seven occasions and will draw from that deep well of experience Saturday while the Waratahs have appeared in the final twice previously and lost to the Crusaders on both occasions.
New South Wales' failure to win the tournament in its 18 year history is not only a source of deep regret, even embarassment but an accusation that they lack the temperament to do so.
They have often been among the most star-studded teams in the competition and have irritated rivals by presumptuously talking up their chances. But until now their performances constantly have fallen short of potential.
This season has been the best in their history - they won 12
regular season matches to finish atop the table and to claim a home final for the first time - but that only adds to the pressure to close out a maiden win this weekend.
“History has tended to lead to the conclusion that we won't deliver on the day,” head coach Michael Cheika said. “I suppose we've been told that for a while .... everyone thought we'd fall over at some stage.”
Cheika acknowledges the advantage the Crusaders enjoy in having been so often in the championship match.
“You get a certain air of confidence when you're continually in the finals,” he said. “They'd be feeling comfortable with their opponent.
“They've got the luxury of having a guy like (Dan) Carter who they can let sit at home and relax for four or five months and then come in when they need him. That's always handy isn't it?”
The Waratahs will still likely start as favorites on Saturday as the team with both the best attacking and best defensive records in the tournament. Their backline is outstanding with Wallabies Bernard Foley at flyhalf and Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper in the centers, creating chances for fullbck Israel Folau who led the competition with 12 tries this year.
Their backrow is imposing and captain Michael Hooper leads their defense from the openside flank while Stephen Hoiles, Wycliff Palu and lock Jacques Potgeiter are dangerous ball carriers.
They then have, lurking on the bench, the giant young lock Will Skelton who can be introduced in the fourth quarter to torment a tiring defense. But their lineout has been faulty at times and their scrum is only adequate. The Crusaders will target those areas with a forward pack entirely composed of current or former New Zealand internationals.
In fact, only two members of the Crusaders' starting lineup - wingers Kieron Fonotia and Fiji international Nemani Nadolo - have not worn the black jersey. Carter's inclusion at inside center, in combination with flyhalf Colin Slade, adds quality and experience to their backline.
Their form has been checkered at times this season - they lost three of their first five games and haven't gained steady momentum since. But their 38-6 semifinal win over the highly-rated Sharks was a complete performance that demonstrates their ability to rise to a new level in playoffs matches.
Current head coach Todd Blackadder has taken them to one final and six semifinals in the past seven years but the championships has so far eluded him.
“We are under no illusion that it's going to be a massive effort on the weekend against a red-hot Waratahs team,” Blackadder said.
“They've won nine or 10 in a row, they keep the ball more than most and where most teams would kick it they run it. They certainly put defenses under a lot of pressure so we're really going to have go up a gear in our defense and be smart too.” – Sapa-AP