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Brett McKay
Brett McKay | Columnist Index
One of the new breed of Australian online rugby writers, Brett McKay joins ESPNscrum.com having developed a popular presence on sports opinion site The Roar. He also tweets from @BMcSport.
Scrum5
Waratahs must shake history to make history
Brett McKay
July 28, 2014
Scrum5 podcast: Super Rugby grand final for ages

And then there were two. The 2014 Super Rugby finalists have been decided, and Australia will host just its fourth final in the 19 years of the competition. For New South Wales Waratahs, this weekend represents their third attempt at winning a maiden title, having lost both previous appearances to the team they'll host. The Crusaders' presence in the last game of the season is already the stuff of Super Rugby legend.

Here are the Super Rugby talking points from the Super Rugby semi-finals. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

Sharks' one Christchurch performance came two months too early

There was the very strong feeling at half-time in Christchurch that the Sharks at 16-6 down were walking the tightrope between staying in the contest and getting belted. Sure enough, Nemani Nadolo scored in the 48th minute, and that, as they say in the classics, was that.

This was the most un-Sharks-like Sharks performance of the year, and you couldn't help but feel as the game went on and the margin blew out that they had already played their Christchurch grand final in May. The inspirational 30-25 win - with 14 men, mostly - over the Crusaders back in round 14 was the one they needed on the night, but this performance was a long, long way off that.

Crusaders 38-6 Sharks (Australia only)
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It was genuinely astounding how often the Crusaders were able to secure their ruck ball under next to no pressure. Against one of the best defensive teams in Super Rugby all season, they made the gain line at will against a team so passive that it was hard to believe the Sharks had conceded only 1.5 tries per game in their 17 preceding games. I'd be inclined to say the Sharks defence was allowing the Crusaders to come at them, but in truth, I don't think they were ever stationary long enough such was their rate of retreat.

So much of their play looked nothing like what we'd become used to from the Sharks this season: the physicality faded quickly; the breakdown pressure disappeared in the second half; the territorial game often didn't find territory; the midfield attack was stilted, but given it's been non-existent in the past month "stilted" is arguably an improvement.

Like the Brumbies last year, perhaps Jake White's Sharks were a year ahead of schedule, too. Certainly, the easiest and obvious explanation is that the inexperience of a large number of young players got to them in a high-pressure situation. There's still an enormous amount for which the Sharks should be proud in season 2014, but there's no doubt their semi-final performance will haunt them until February and beyond.

Crusaders fresh as …

Crusaders raised the bar: Jake White
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The Crusaders didn't get the contest they were expecting, and I'm guessing they didn't need anywhere near as much ice post-match as they had ready, but they will have enjoyed winning through to the final as easy as they did. In the end, it was a procession. Three tries in the last 20 minutes ensured the scoreboard attendants were kept busy until the end, but the game was won in that first 10 minutes after the break.

Both teams had a decent share of possession and territory in the first half, kicked roughly the same amount, and made similar metres from a similar number of runs. The only major discrepancy by the half was the Crusaders had thrown twice has many passes. The Sharks had made more offloads but remained stuck in a narrow game plan, while the Crusaders played with more width and created more opportunities - opportunities that really came home to roost in the second half.

In the first half, the Crusaders weren't dominating the contest, just as they weren't dominating the stats sheet. In truth, they didn't have to. Just competing in the physical parts of the game was enough to throw the Sharks off theirs, and the turnovers flowed from there. In the second half, that flow became a flood of possession against a defensive line on the back foot, and an unguarded advantage line for the taking.

And take it they did. When reserve scrum-half Willie Heinz strolled over from the base of a Sharks defensive scrum on their five-metre line, with Charl McLeod looking for who-knows-what somewhere else, it was the beginning of the rot and it only got worse from there.

The discussion post-match in Sydney was around just how fresh the Crusaders will come into the final, compared with the brutal clash the Waratahs encountered. Whether it's enough to counter the home-ground advantage remains to be seen, but it's a factor the Crusaders will be undoubtedly happy about.

The semi that deserved to be a decider

Waratahs 26-8 Brumbies (Australia only)
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The result was pretty clear in the end, and we're all thankful for that. The way Jaco Peyper seemingly lost his way at the breakdown, you'd hate to have seen the game decided by debatable penalties. The debates will still be there - of course they will - but there can't really be any debate that the best team all season won through.

The Waratahs had to work for it, mind you. The Brumbies camped in the Tahs half for massive chunks of the second half, and had the opportunities. Tevita Kuridrani had a chance in the right corner, and Robbie Coleman lost the ball in space with the left corner beckoning just a couple of phases later - with Waratahs scrum-half Nick Phipps defensively responsible both times. Only minutes later, Will Skelton's considerable bulk was thrown into the contest, and the impact was immediate.

The second semi-final had all the physicality and intensity that was lacking in the first. The way the respective packs ripped into each other had to be seen to be believed. On that front, there was none better than Sydney's new cult hero, Jacques Potgieter, who literally threw himself into rucks for 80 minutes. Some of the legality was probably questionable, but I'll refer you back to the opening sentence for the possible explanation.

There was no question the best team on the night won. None at all. The Brumbies threw the sink, the bench top, and the whole kitchen cabinetry at the Waratahs in a massive second-half effort - the Brumbies took 68% of territory in the second half - but couldn't break the sky-blue wall in front of them. And because they felt they had set-piece dominance as well, they turned down numerous kickable penalties in the chase for tries. The Brumbies had 15 entries into the Waratahs' 22 for the match, yet came away with points only twice - and not at all after the break.

It was a cracking semi-final, and the Waratahs thoroughly deserve their place in the decider. The heaving Sydney crowd bathed in the glory of the win well after full-time, with the occasion missing only a trophy presentation. And that would've been deserved, too; it was that good a game.

Brumbies can hold their heads high

Departing Brumbies skipper Ben Mowen told us three weeks ago that he thought his team "deserved" a Super Rugby title for all the hard work they've put in since their agonising defeat in the decider in Hamilton last season; it's a line he's been running with ever since, and he used again on Saturday night post-match.

It's almost certainly debateable whether any team deserves a title because of the amount of work put in outside games - all teams work hard, after all - there is certainly no question the Brumbies can enjoy their end-of-season beers with their heads held high.

Considering the off-season shake-up, in which coach and chief executive both departed ahead of time, in which the club moved out of its home for the previous eighteen seasons of Super Rugby into temporary digs and shipping containers, and in which Mowen himself shocked all and sundry by announcing his move to France before a game had been played in 2014, to have played a semi-final is a remarkable achievement in itself.

The evolution of the Brumbies is apparent, and it's clear the team is moving on from the Jake White methods - of which over-criticism seems to have become cool again. Even with Laurie Fisher moving on, too, the Brumbies have a solid set-piece and breakdown game to take them forward; and the attacking and expansive way they finished the season is something they can be very happy about.

Worthy finalists set for a Super Rugby record crowd

We got there in a roundabout way - very roundabout when you think about the Crusaders' season to any great depth - but ultimately the Super Rugby final will be contested by the two best teams by the end of the competition.

And that seems a funny point to be making, given the number of times we've said on the #Scrum5 podcast this season that the Crusaders have won games despite not playing brilliant rugby. But the thing about the champion sides is that even when not playing brilliantly - especially when not playing brilliantly, actually - they still find a way of getting the job done, despite their form line of the time. We certainly asked questions of the Crusaders in the early rounds of the competition, and the concerns were genuine. That they've been able to come back from the slowest of their typically slow starts speaks volumes for the character and culture of the team.

In reality, though, they've been one of two consistent sides among the top half of the competition since the June Test window; and they'll face the other in the final. The way they've slipped back into their systems and improved week-to-week, all the while gently easing back the likes of Dan Carter, Kieran Read, and now Richie McCaw makes them all the more dangerous for the Waratahs this Saturday night.

And it's already shaping as a record-breaking night, with SANZAR releasing a statement on Saturday night saying an "all-time Super Rugby-record crowd is expected to descend upon Sydney's ANZ Stadium where the Waratahs and the Crusaders will battle for the title".

With a capacity of more than 83,000 at ANZ Stadium, the Sydney crowd is expected to eclipse the estimated 55,000 people who watched the Bulls beat the Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld in 2009. Durban's Kings Park in 2007 and Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium in 2011 also hosted finals with more than 52,000 people in attendance.

Join the conversation: Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.

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