Sydney – The New South Wales Waratahs face their nemesis the Canterbury Crusaders in this season's Super Rugby final after a Herculean defensive effort to overcome the ACT Brumbies this weekend.
The Waratahs displayed a solid backbone to resist the two-time champion Brumbies 26-8 in their home semi-final and set up a championship decider against the New Zealand conference champions at Sydney's Olympic stadium next weekend.
While the Crusaders have won the southern hemisphere provincial series seven times and are into their 11th final after brushing aside South Africa's Sharks 38-6 in Christchurch, the Waratahs are still chasing their first title.
The Waratahs are through to their third final after losing both their previous deciders to the Crusaders in 2005 and 2008.
To become Super 15 champions, the Waratahs will have to reverse a run of defeats against the Crusaders, who they have not faced so far this season.
The Sydneysiders have lost their last 11 meetings with the Kiwi king-pins with their last success coming in 2004 and they have only won two of their 18 meetings.
It will be a tall order for the much-improved Waratahs to overcome the big-match reputation of the Crusaders, led by All Black greats Richie McCaw and Dan Carter and world player of the year and captain Kieran Read.
As Waratahs scrum-half Nick Phipps, his team's man of the match in the Brumbies win, said: “It was good that we were able to weather that storm and we know that there's an even bigger storm coming.”
No sooner had the euphoria of reaching the final subsided than coach Michael Cheika emphasised what now confronted his Waratahs.
“If you start worrying about them (Crusaders), we'll be worrying about a million things,” he said.
“They've got so many strong points; strong set piece; defensive line-out. They can kick if they want to kick to you – with (Andy Ellis, Colin Slade, Dan Carter, Israel Dagg) – and they can run when they want to go wide with Nemani Nadolo and all those guys.
“I think we'll just focus on what we're doing and see if it's good enough.”
But under Cheika the Waratahs have this season developed a flinty resolve, clearly on show in the tenacious defensive effort to repulse the Brumbies, who laid siege to their try-line for most of the second half.
“We never give up,” Cheika said. “We put them into touch in the corner three or four times. Work-rate is something we pride ourselves on. We have to push everything to chase everything down.
“It was something we knew we needed to improve if we wanted to be real competitors. Our attacking game would come naturally.
“But some days when good teams come at you, you are not always going to be able to deliver that.”
“We had to defend more than we have had to previously because we incurred a lot of penalties and that kept us pinned down. They spurned many kicks at goal as well, which I was surprised about. That meant you had to defend hard.”
After a slow start to the season, in which the Crusaders lost their first two matches, the seven-times champions have put themselves in contention for their first title since 2008.
“We're really excited about the opportunity. The Olympic Stadium is a great venue, we haven't played the Waratahs, don't know them that well although obviously we've seen a lot of their footage and they're the top qualifier,” coach Todd Blackadder said.
“I don't think we'll be daunted by the challenge at all. If anything it's a great opportunity for us.
“I think the past is the past and the last couple of years we haven't quite got across the line but we've got a group of men here who are pretty excited to do something special this year so the want and desire is definitely there.” – Sapa-AFP