Form versus pedigree in blockbuster Super 15 final
Rampant Waratahs swept the board in the regular season, but history is on the side of Crusaders
Form collides head-on with pedigree when the New South Wales Waratahs bid for a first Super Rugby title against seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders in a blockbuster final at Sydney's ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
The often rampant Waratahs ran away with the regular season standings this year, having swept the board in all the offensive categories - carries, tries, metres, passes, breaks, offloads and most importantly, points.
In fullback Israel Folau, they have Super Rugby's top try scorer and in their gritty semi-final victory over the ACT Brumbies last weekend, they proved their defence was from the top drawer as well.
On Saturday, in front of what is expected to be a Super Rugby record crowd in excess of 55,000, they come up against a Crusaders side who rode a poor start to the season and finished second before crushing the Sharks in their semi-final.
"They've earned the right to be called number one, but this is what the final is all about, two teams, first and second, are going to dog it out," Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said with some relish.
In their 11th title decider, history is resolutely on the side of the New Zealanders, who beat the Waratahs in both of their two previous finals in 2005 and 2008, and have not lost to the Sydney-based side for a decade.
And even in a match where players without international caps will be the exception, the names of Crusaders stalwarts Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read - who have six IRB World Player of the Year awards between them - stand out.
But winning things the hard way is exactly what Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who has transformed the culture of the underperforming state side in his two years at the helm, always wanted.
"We had to take on the highest seed in the final to really earn our stripes," he said in the flush of the Brumbies victory.
"It's going to be really difficult, I think they've been in a million finals and we'll be relative debutants. But there'll be no lack of energy going into that final."
Cheika, who will be going for a special coaching double having led Leinster to their 2009 Heineken Cup triumph, has built a team brimming with confidence that has simply overwhelmed many sides with their attacking potency this year.
Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley have been a revelation as a halfback partnership, while the quicksilver Kurtley Beale at inside centre has played a major role in helping Folau to his 12 tries.
It is in the pack, though, that former number eight Cheika has made the biggest difference - revitalising big ball carrier Wycliff Palu, bringing in former Springbok lock Jacques Potgieter and developing young second rower Will Skelton.
For all the second row muscle, though, the Waratahs have reached the final despite a malfunctioning lineout - a flaw that will not have gone unnoticed by a Crusaders side that prides themselves on set-piece efficiency.
The Crusaders have no shortage of attacking options in their backline either with the likes of All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg and bullocking Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo.
Nadolo's own try tally is just one short of Folau's.
And for all their fine pedigree, that 2008 victory over the Waratahs in Christchurch was their last Super Rugby triumph.
Ominously for the home side, one word came up time and again when the Crusaders spoke to the media this week - hunger.