Crusaders and Waratahs - the ultimate Bledisloe dress rehearsal
Sunday, July 27, 2014 James Mortimer Getty Images
The Crusaders have six first choice All Blacks - Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Dan Carter and Israel Dagg – while there is a further eight players who have at some stage worn the black jersey who will be in the likely 23 to play in the closing match of the campaign.
Nemani Nadolo, among the competition’s premier offensive blades, is Fijian and won't be part of All Blacks plans (which would create a delightful selection dilemma).
The Crusaders employ the powerhouse wing in a manner similar to how the World Champions field Julian Savea.
Meanwhile the Waratahs, who had their form rewarded with eleven berths in Ewen McKenzie’s Wallabies squad for The Investec Rugby Championship, will supply several members to Australia’s starting side.
It is difficult to see how Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper could be left out of the run on team out wide, while Nic Phipps and Bernard Foley have made compelling cases to run the cutter.
Growth is obvious, the Wallabies named seven new faces from the squad that whitewashed France, the astonishing production line is such that Will Genia and Quade Cooper – long-time stalwarts for the Test outfit – are missing but the side looks as potent as ever.
McKenzie has riches, but may be undecided as to who constitutes his finest back division.
Waratahs boss Michael Cheika has in contrast rolled out a consistent rear guard as often as possible, his top backs have formed formidable combinations.
The Crusaders have once again showcased their squad depth, they conquered the New Zealand Conference with a consistent regular season that didn’t feature Carter, while the side had no McCaw or Read available during different periods.
Open side Matt Todd and the bruising Jordan Taufua have been in rampaging form, indeed the latter, just 22-years-young, was unlucky to be 'dropped' last week to the reserves, but the availability of two All Blacks captains was always going to lead to a tough call or two.
In recent years this may have been a weakness for the Christchuch based side, but the reintegration of Carter is something that only adds to the firepower, while adding more than a dash of mystique.
The tournament’s leading point’s scorer looks in enviable condition, but it is the hum of the forward engine that is driving the red and blacks which will have coach Todd Blackadder bullish about finally cracking through to putting on his first title ring.
While All Blacks mentor Steve Hansen will reward himself with a movie and a milkshake knowing that three of his seniors, the only New Zealand players to have won an IRB World Player of the Year award, are beginning to find their stride.
McCaw, Read and Carter haven’t had flawless build ups by conventional terms, but they are fit and ready for action at rugby's highest table - they were rarely troubled by their opposites in the penultimate weekend of Investec Super Rugby.
In contrast however Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks are battle hardened and looking as formidable as ever.
Tactically the Waratahs have upped their template and back their try scoring ability in a manner which brings back memories of the New South Wales teams of the late 1920s and the era that was the dawn of 1980 – which saw three brothers called Mark, Glen and Gary turning out for the side and transforming the Australian Rugby playbook.
Under Cheika the side isn’t quite as flamboyant, but as potent offensively and turning out with a controlled aggression that has seen their pack rightly rated as being among the best.
A tag that also applies to a Crusaders forward unit dripping with All Blacks.
Two new aspects are to be considered after the semi-finals.
The Waratahs, hosts of the final courtesy of the top of the table finish, will be looking to emulate twelve Super Rugby winners – who have lifted the trophy thanks to closing out the regular season number one.
Suggestions that New South Wales might be weak in the lineout is countered by their flashy numbers ranking them as having the best attack and among the top three tackling teams overall.
Yet the Crusaders haven’t looked this sharp and relentless since, say perhaps 2008, the last time the most successful franchise won it all.
The only thing that stands between them is the best performed team in the 2014 competition, to be rewarded initially with a finanicial windfall with over 80,000 expected for the final at Australia's biggest stadium alongside the famous MCG.
And to think after this, the ‘real’ Bledisloe Cup begins.
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