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PREVIEW: Super Rugby grand final — Waratahs vs Crusaders

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(Image via smh.com.au)

The exciting NSW Waratahs play the mighty Canterbury Crusaders in the Super Rugby grand final tonight, but IA sports reporter Lachlan Barker says the omens are against the Australian team.

IT COULD BE a night that makes history — or another one that got away.

On Saturday night, the NSW Super Rugby franchise, the Waratahs, take on the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super Rugby grand final at Stadium Australia.

History is on the side of the New Zealanders — they have not lost to the Waratahs in a decade.

However there is an old maxim that goes around at football finals time which runs:

'You’ve got to lose one, before you win one.'

This refers seemingly to the battle hardening that comes with being in the unholy pressure cooker of a grand final.

Well the ‘Tahs have indeed lost in the grand final — and not once, but twice – in 2005 and 2008 – and so you could say they have at least got that out of their system.

However, ominously, both of these defeats were to, yes, the Crusaders.

So they are still facing an almightily daunting task.

The Crusaders have won seven titles, and are looking to add to the record on Saturday night with their eighth victory.

However the ‘Tahs are at home, which always helps and, with the two grand final losses under their belts, have some history on their side. They have home advantage because they have been the dominant team in the competition this season, playing an exciting running brand of football to take out the minor premiership.

Canterbury, on the other hand, came good in the latter half of the season after a very slow start. They reached the finals the hard way as they second placed New Zealand team and needed to beat the Chiefs and then the Sharks last weekend to book their place in the final.

The Waratahs, on the other hand, have had the benefit of a week off during the finals rounds to rest and recuperate.

Countering this is another pair of historical stats.

The All Blacks have a 54% win record over the Wallabies at Stadium Australia, and the Crusaders are the only team to win a Super Rugby grand final away from home, defeating the Brumbies in Canberra in 2000.

And just before returning to the immediate grand final, I’d like to provide a service for Australian rugby fans, that has come up reasonably regularly — namely where are all these teams are from.

The Australian franchises are well known to local union followers: the Waratahs from NSW, the Reds of Queensland, the Melbourne Rebels out of Victoria, the Western Force are from WA and the Brumbies are from the ACT.

In New Zealand, going from north to south: The Blues are from Auckland; the Chiefs, formerly the Waikato Chiefs, are from Hamilton; the aptly named Hurricanes are from the windy capital of New Zealand, Wellington; the Crusaders are based in Christchurch, the centre city of the Canterbury region, hence the name; and the Highlanders are from the southernmost region, Otago, with their home ground at Dunedin.

Most fans can get a handle on the above Australian and New Zealand teams, but many admit to getting lost when it comes to the South Africans ventures.

So...

 The Bulls are from the nation’s capital, Pretoria, where they exist close to the Lions of Johannesburg.

The Lions were formerly known as The Golden Cats, as their feeder teams were the Golden Lions, Leopards and Pumas. By the way, this was a little confusing as there is another African cat, the Golden, or Caracal Cat. To end this nomenclature confusion, the team name was brought back to reflect the dominant African feline, the Lions, in 2006.

The other cats, the Cheetahs, were formally known as the Central Cheetahs, and come from inland Bloemfontein. The Sharks are from the popular coastal holiday destination of Durban. The Stormers are from Cape Town and, as such, have their local derby with the Southern Kings of Port Elizabeth.

All clear?

Good, on we go with a bit more history.

The Super Rugby championship has its origins in the pre-SANZAR era as the Super 6 and Super 10 competions of 1992 and 1993-1995 respectively. The current competition official began as the Super 12 in 1996, expanded to the Super 14 in 2006, and once more to the current Super 15 format in 2011.

In this time, somewhat predictably, New Zealand teams have been the most successful, winning 12 of the 17 titles — with the Crusaders, as mentioned above, the most successful of all with seven titles.

South African sides have won three titles, all by the Bulls, with Australia the same: two from the Brumbies, and one from the Reds, being the most recently successful Australian team — beating the team the Waratahs face tonight, Canterbury, in Brisbane in 2011.

Could that be a good omen for the 'Tahs?

So we return to Saturday night, with NSW having a bit of history to overcome, though with a couple of things on their side as well, including home advantage.

The players themselves though are doing their best to downplay the weight of history.

Waratah Number-8 Wycliff Palu said this week:

"We haven't thought about it at all, we've done a lot of mental work this year and that was one of the biggest keys, forgetting all that kind of stuff.”

However, playing down the weight of history is one thing, but when it comes to the Crusaders’ players themselves, “daunting” once again becomes the word of the day.

The Canterbury outfit sports two forwards who have every claim to being the world’s best — All Blacks back-rowers, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.

McCaw is the All Black captain, while Read is current World Rugby Player of the Year.

So for Palu and his forward comrades, getting hold of either of these two is the rugby equivalent of grabbing a particularly annoyed bull as it emerges from the rodeo chute.

Added to this forward power, the Crusaders have Dan Carter at fly-half.

Carter has recently regained his place in the national side and is rejuvenated and ready to pummel the ‘Tahs.

Carter’s list of accolades is frightening stuff for the NSW players to contemplate.

He is the highest points scorer in Test match rugby and is arguably the sport's greatest ever five eighth (fly-half).

He has been World Player of the Year twice – 2005 and 2012 – and will thus be one the light blues most need to contain.

But the Waratahs are not short of game-changing players themselves, Rugby League convert Israel Folau lines up on the wing, while Adam Ashley-Cooper and Kurtley Beale also take their place in a lethally potent backline.

Beale is (sadly) probably best known for slipping over when attempting a penalty kick against the British and Irish Lions that would have won the Wallabies the match, but is an undeniable match-winner on his day.

Test fly-half, Bernard Foley will do the kicking on Saturday night and, following a four from six effort against the Brumbies in the semi-final, should prove more than capable with the boot.

So, while perhaps more of the portents are against the Waratahs on Saturday night than are for them, we love an underdog and so they may come through.

However probably the worst thing of all to realise is the Crusaders’ coach is Todd Blackadder, so we can be in no doubt he will have a cunning plan...

Read more by Lachlan Barker at cyclonecharlie88.blogspot.com.au and follow him on Twitter@cyclonecharlie8.

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