So here we are – after a long, enthralling and bumpy season that has encompassed many an upset, the Waratahs will welcome the Crusaders to ANZ Stadium on Saturday to decide who will be crowned the 2014 Super Rugby champions.
On balance, the right two teams have made it to the final. The Waratahs have topped pretty much all of the stats – both defensive and attacking – for the duration of the season, and no-one has got the pulse racing quite like they have with ball in hand. The Crusaders have shown that knack that all great champions have – timing their run to form to perfection, to peak at the business end of the season and power into the final.
But who to pick on Saturday?
It’s a very tough question. The Waratahs have been the most consistent side this season, and you cannot argue with their home record – played nine, won nine, seven try-scoring bonus points and a points difference of +194.
And yet. Against the Brumbies last weekend, they wobbled slightly (although the scoreboard does not suggest so). It was dogged, never-say-die defence that won them the game, not the free-flowing, ball-through-the-hands attack that has so thrilled this season. That kind of energy-sapping defensive effort is not sustainable for entire matches, and the Waratahs will be fatigued from the effort.
The Crusaders will have noted this – kick intelligently, pin the Waratahs back and disrupt their set piece and they won’t be allowed the platform from which to launch their devastating weaponry behind the scrum.
The Saders themselves breezed through their semi-final, steamrolling a Sharks side that gifted them counter-attacking opportunities aplenty. This will not have escaped the attentions of the Waratahs, either – with Nadolo, Dagg and Read all immense when running the ball back, their kickers must make sure there is nothing loose.
And then of course there is the matter of experience. The Waratahs have never won a Super Rugby title, falling in the final in both 2005 and 2008 to – you guessed it – the Crusaders. The Crusaders themselves have won seven titles and made a further three finals – knockout rugby is their bread and butter.
That said, they have not won a title since they beat the Waratahs in 2008, and there aren’t many players from either side that are likely to feature in this weekend’s game that still carry the scars, or joyous memories, of that one.
Returning to the question of who to pick – the Waratahs must be slight favourites. They have the all-court attack to beat the Crusaders, while they showed last weekend that even when they do not dominate territory and possession, they have a doggedness – typified by the sublime Michael Hooper and the understated brilliance of Jacques Potgieter – to grind out victories with their defence.
The Crusaders will pose a serious challenge, and this game will likely be much, much closer than the majority of the final stage games so far, that have seen scorelines more akin to preseason friendlies than nail-biting, knockout encounters. But the Waratahs have home advantage, the best defence and the best attack of the season – if not now, then when?
SuperBru prediction: Waratahs by 3
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43