Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Momentum rides with Waratahs

Waratahs halfback Nick Phipps delivered quality cover tackles. Photo / Greg Bowker
Waratahs halfback Nick Phipps delivered quality cover tackles. Photo / Greg Bowker

We've got the Super Rugby final we wanted as a tantalising entree to the Bledisloe Cup.

Through the whims of the skewed draw, the Crusaders and Waratahs bypassed each other in the regular season but will slug it out on Saturday for the title as the best side in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Tahs have lost 11 on the bounce against the Crusaders since 2004 yet this season there is more spine about them and more collective heat they can generate although that could be more of the hot air which is generated in the guise of objectivity across the Ditch.

When they mesh as the Wallabies those qualities will receive a big initial inquiry in the August 16 start of the Rugby Championship as the All Blacks hit Sydney in search of a world record-winning sequence.

The appetiser comes this Saturday, a fortnight ahead of that test duel as the Crusaders hit Sydney to seek a Super Rugby coronation which has eluded the Tahs throughout the tournament history.

Twice before, in 2005 and 2008, the Tahs have gone to the tournament summit and both times have been castled by the Crusaders. In this campaign they have been staunch as coach Michael Chieka has chipped away much of the group's flaky veneer.

Chieka was an aggressive loose forward who played more than 300 games for the famous Randwick club and has strapped that combative mental cloak around the Tahs. He began by demanding they get ultra fit as an initial test of their resilience.

Then he laid down details for a style which complemented the players' skills, suited the demands of a long-haul competition and equally importantly, in the rugged commercial eastern-seaboard TV market in Australia, pricked the public's and sponsors' interest.

Much of the formula has shown through the Waratahs' results, which provoked officials into a finals venue shift to ANZ Stadium in Homebush with its 83,500 capacity.

It is doubtful whether that gives the Tahs any home advantage. They have played twice at Homebush this year and the rest of the time have worked out of the more compact inner-city ground in Paddington.

While that surface is soft they are used to it and the Crusaders have not played there for a while.

However most of the Crusaders are familiar with the nuances and conditions at Homebush because they play there regularly with the All Blacks. Cue also the hordes of expat Kiwis who live in Sydney to bring their vocal support to negate the chants of TahMan and his followers.

Add in the big game experience of men like Richie McCaw, who returned from a rib injury with a huge game against the Sharks, while their five-eighths Patrick Lambie returned from a long layoff with a bicep injury with a ragged display.

Watch: Rugby Highlights: Waratahs 26 Brumbies 8

Not that the Tahs lack men with big match experience. Adam Ashley-Cooper guides the backline defence, Israel Folau has graced multi-codes, Michael Hooper bashes away with the best No7s and Tatafu Polota Nau has been through the frontrow grind.

In previous eras, the Tahs would have folded against the Brumbies' semifinal onslaught but in their 26-8 victory they were resolute.

It was essential as the Brumbies piled on plenty of heat through their possession and territory advantages. Under the pump, the Waratahs bent but did not break.

The Crusaders will note the Waratahs' set-piece issues and want to make much more of those glitches while also working on how to pierce or circumvent the strong Tahs defensive screen. That line held as halfback Nick Phipps delivered quality cover tackles and when the Tahs got a sniff, they countered with withering, viper-like strikes.

All the statistics favour the Tahs this season while much of the history sits with the Crusaders as they scrap to nail the honours in the precursor to the Bledisloe series.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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