Super Rugby
Super Rugby grand final preview
Greg Growden and Brittany Mitchell
July 31, 2014
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick preview the Super Rugby grand final

Waratahs v Crusaders, ANZ Stadium, Sydney

19:40 local, 09:40 GMT, 19:40 EST, 19:10 CST, 17:40 WST

Head to Head: Played 20; Waratahs 4, Crusaders 16

In Sydney: Played 8; Waratahs 3, Crusaders 5

Last Played: Round 16, 2013 - Crusaders 23-22 Waratahs, AMI Stadium, Christchurch

Tahs embracing underdog tag

Preview: The Waratahs haven't defeated the Crusaders in their past 11 matches since, but the minor premiers shouldn't be ruled out on that stat alone. Unbeaten at home in 2014, the young and spirited side are huge contenders in the Waratahs' first home grand final.

In what Greg Growden has described as the "final the fans deserve", this season's best side takes on Super Rugby's most successful side to become the 2014 champions. And the Crusaders are the Waratahs' biggest bogey side, as they haven't lost two the Australian outfit in their past 11 matches since 2004 - including two grand finals in Christchurch. But five of the past six matches have been decided by eight points or fewer, and this shapes as a nail-biter.

The Waratahs, the minor premiers, must be at their very best in all aspects of their game if they are to maintain their undefeated home record and claim their maiden title against the second-best team of the year. The Waratahs are known this season for their devastating attacking figures - racking up the most carries, metres, breaks, offloads and passes in competition - but their defence against the Brumbies in the second semi-final secured the last final spot. In contrast to their season average of the second-longest time in possession of the ball, the Waratahs struggled to secure and retain possession last week; they were put under huge defensive pressure, but maintained their season average of the fewest missed tackles - making 107 tackles and missing only seven to ensure the Brumbies scored but one try and not a single point in the second half.

But the Waratahs didn't come away from the match unscathed: their set-piece was hammered and struggled when put under intense pressure. The Waratahs' set-pieces have been wobbly throughout the season, but they have struggled even more in the past few weeks - since the loss of Dave Dennis to a season-ending knee injury - and the Crusaders are sure to apply huge pressure. The Tahs won all of their put-ins and two of the Brumbies', but their scrum was penalised throughout the opening half and a similar performance on Saturday could easily cost them the match. But it is their lineout that is causing the most problems for the Tahs, with the side struggling to overcome to loss of their captain and caller, Dennis. They lost three lineouts last week, and need to improve their success rate if they hope to get good ball for their solid attacking backline. In their toughest match of the season, the Waratahs must play with their attacking flair, but also be wary of their turnover and penalty figures that could easily rule them out of the game.

Crusaders raised the bar: Jake White

The Crusaders will enter their 11th Super Rugby final, their third against the Waratahs, in search of their eighth title. However, despite their success, the Crusaders have suffered a title-drought, last winning in 2008 - against the Waratahs.

The Crusaders are chockfull of Super Rugby and Test experience, and they are known for their strength during finals and their ability to close out a match. Given their near-perfect performance against the Sharks last week, they are sure to be a tough side this week.

A solid and destructive side across the field, the Crusaders' set-piece has been the building block on which their game develops. They have an extremely high set-piece success rate, and will aim to dominate both the scrum and lineout -they ranked third for both this season - especially given the Waratahs' hiccups. Tthe Crusaders have also been extremely successful in disrupting opposition lineouts and scrums, but they faced a few hiccups of their own last week - losing two of their own lineouts that saw their success rate slip to 75% against their normal 89%. The Crusaders are also strong over the ball and are quick to create turnovers at the breakdown. They have not been a dominant attacking side like the Waratahs this season, but they demonstrated their destructive counter-attack capabilities when they made easy metres through the broken Sharks defence.

The Crusaders were tested in areas of their game against the Sharks. They dominated possession but missed a huge 21 tackles; they have a low tackling success rate of only 85%, something they need to rectify if they are not to pay against the potent Waratahs backline. Also, in contrast to their discipline through the season - conceding fewer penalties per game than any other side apart from the Lions - the Crusaders made several mistakes and conceded a massive 13 penalties; similar ill-discipline could prove costly against Waratahs.

Kicking success rates are also definitely going to cause an impact this week, and the key decision between Dan Carter or Colin Slade kicking goals could be decisive for the Cruaders - with Slade sitting on a 79% success rate and Carter on only 60%. But, with the side returning to their best in recent weeks, the Crusaders will be confident they can play their game structure in order to shut down the Tahs and earn their eighth Super Rugby title.

Bernard Foley is the unheralded hero of the Waratahs © Getty Images

Key Players

Waratahs: Every player for the Waratahs has had a huge impact throughout the year, and their relatively unchanged line-up through the season is testament to the fact. But Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley have been the bread and butter in the winning formula this season.

Folau has topped the charts for tries (12), offloads (47) and clean breaks (26) this season, and the Waratahs will look for him to play a key role having been shut out of the game by the Brumbies; look for him to seek involvement in fresh areas of the game - a Plan B - if the Crusaders succeed in shutting down the supply line. Beale has played some of his best rugby this season, creating a strong combination with Foley and Folau, and he has scored/assisted in 18 tries (eight of which he scored), made 12 line breaks and 225 carries; his link play with Foley, the top points scorer this season, is essential for the Tahs.

Michael Hooper also will be essential in the Waratahs' game. Taking over the captaincy from Dennis, he leads the side from the front with a cool head and stays calm under pressure. Hooper is a top tackler - making 10 last week - as well as a strong ball runner; he beat two defenders and made 15 metres against the Brumbies.

Kieran Read is lethal in broken play © Getty Images

Crusaders: Despite the side facing a few hiccups throughout the season, the Crusaders returned to their best in time for the finals with several players key in their rise.

Nemani Nadolo has been a revelation for the Crusaders, scoring 11 tries and making 61 tackle busts and 25 clean breaks in his 13 appearances this year; he made a huge 111 metres last week against the Sharks. He is a potent figure in the Crusaders backline, and his ability to find the try line could be the making or breaking of the Crusaders. Working closely alongside Nadolo, Colin Slade will also play a huge part in the Crusaders game. Slade has led his backline to the finals and, alongside Dan Carter last week, provided a fly-half masterclass; his strong kicking game will be an instrumental part in the Crusaders' plans. Despite missing a fair chunk of the season through injury, Kieran Read is sure to play a huge part in the Crusaders game. A dominating figure up front, a strong ball runner and link player, the 2013 IRB Player of the Year is sure to take charge early. He ran 62 metres last week alone, and he will be a huge threat in broken play.

Ruck'n Maul: Nothing wrong with confidence

Greg Growden's verdict: It all revolves around peaking at the right time, and that is why the Crusaders look so ominous. The Crusaders have strangely spluttered at times this season, but the engine has been purrrrrring the last few weeks. They also have no qualms about playing at Homebush- as their All Blacks-dominated line-up is accustomed to winning Test matches in that part of town. The Waratahs will certainly irritate and threaten - especially if their attack gets enough quality possession to unleash Israel Folau, Alofa Alofa and Kurtley Beale on a regular basis. But the Crusaders will do all they can to fragment the Waratahs' ball - focusing on what are clearly their weak points of a faltering lineout and a scrum that is above average but can occasionally be exposed. If the Waratahs are forced to rush their plays, the Crusaders are well on their way to another Super Rugby triumph. And, yes, I will just love to be proven wrong because the Waratahs will be deserved titleholders - especially as they have revitalised Australian rugby.

Brett McKay says: There's no doubt the Crusaders have come good at the right time of the year, and their championship pedigree means they can't be written off easily. But the Waratahs have been a consistently better side in 2014, with comfortably the best attack and defence in the second half of the season. That, and home ground advantage - and their immense belief - means they should be too good.

Tips: Greg Growden: Crusaders by 5 Brittany Mitchell: Waratahs by 3 Brett McKay: Waratahs by 7.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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