Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Crusaders have the edge in Super 15 final

Corey Flynn of the Crusaders jumps out of a tackle during the match against the Sharks. Photo / Getty Images
Corey Flynn of the Crusaders jumps out of a tackle during the match against the Sharks. Photo / Getty Images

The Crusaders to win by about 12 points. That is this column's pick for the Super 15 final. There's an obvious route for the Crusaders - concentrate heat on the Waratahs' tight forwards, especially at set piece time, and victory will follow.

Neither side had the ideal preparation for a big final. The Sharks were hopeless but their mighty pack would have reminded the Crusaders what the toughest encounters involve. The Waratahs might have been better served beating a New Zealand or South African team with a ferocious pack in the semifinal rather than the well-organised but relatively tame Brumbies.

If the final was in Christchurch, the Crusaders would destroy the Waratahs. But the Sydney semifinal attracted a big crowd and home advantage cannot be discounted in lifting the Waratahs and turning a few decisions their way. They have outstanding individuals led by fullback Israel Folau and the all-action openside Michael Hooper, but their scrum and lineout beg to be attacked.

The Crusaders are packed with All Blacks who have won big games, while the Waratahs don't know how to win titles and their Wallabies have not tasted great international success. A Waratahs' win would be terrific for Australian rugby, but I can't see it happening.

Cycling dynasty in the making

The steady rise of New Zealand track cycling, led by the world-beating sprinters, is a triumph on many levels and one built to last.

The sprint team - Ethan Mitchell, Sam Webster and Eddie Dawkins - have surged into the New Zealand sporting pantheon, winning the world title in Colombia and securing more golds in Glasgow. Those achievements and others are truly significant, because European superpowers such as Germany and the super-rich Brits, along with Australia of course, dedicate themselves to succeeding in the sport.

Track cycling holds a major advantage over the road version - what takes place in a velodrome can be minutely analysed and the responses completely controlled. The reshaping of track cycling under high-performance director Mark Elliott is a stunning success.

The initial father of this international track sprinting success was Aucklander Justin Grace. During his racing career, Grace - who became a world masters champion - tried to up the ante when sprinting was an afterthought in New Zealand. He even recalls obtaining advanced training programmes from overseas, only to realise they were designed for dopers and way beyond the limits of a legal cyclist.

But there was a home boffin element to Grace's outstanding coaching results, and one which Elliott - who wanted to fully embrace sports science - opposed. In conversations with Grace it was clear he disliked a developing environment in which he saw scientists becoming or replacing coaches, and maybe a diluting of his control. Elliott does not dismiss all traditional coaching elements, but Grace's position was unacceptable to his plan for taking New Zealand to the top.

There will inevitably be different perspectives on an Elliott v Grace situation. Elliott, a measured but iron-willed man, was always going to win, however. Grace left - he now coaches France - and another former New Zealand representative, Aussie Anthony Peden, was hired. Peden came from a high-tech sports background including F1 and is on Elliott's wavelength. And so were the cyclists, although maybe not at once.

Webster, who has won team and individual gold in Glasgow, is nicknamed Wiki (after Wikipedia) because of his thirst for detail, including about opponents. After failing to make the 2012 Olympic squad, his inquiring mind and selection despair encouraged the triple junior world champion from Mt Eden down this strongly scientific track first. The rest followed, although they are far from robots.

The sprint squad has both team and individual spirit. Webster is the Glasgow star, but Dawkins excelled when they beat Germany to win the world teams final in Colombia.

There is vital competition within the track squad, but not at the expense of a unity revealed when winners such as Webster and points race gold medallist Tom Scully speak about the team ethos. New Zealand has uncovered a remarkable core of young men who have the talent, desire, dedication and pain tolerance.

When I last talked to Webster, he reinforced that there are also ambitious, confident young cyclists pushing for squad places, keeping them on their toes. Peden emphasises that every cyclists and staff member must be treated with equal respect, an essential trait he says exists at high sports levels such as F1 racing.

The new national cycling centre in Waikato has brought the cyclists and staff together. Peden obviously knows what he is up to and they are backed by the technological advances from the national cross-sport Gold Mine programme led by neuroscientist Kerry Spackman. (Peden pulls out the Top Secret stamp when you ask for details.)

No single country will dominate a sport like this. It's not rugby. But Webster, Dawkins, Mitchell, Grace, Elliott, Peden, Spackman and co have laid foundations for a most unlikely dynasty. It is already a remarkable story.

- NZ Herald

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Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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