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Australian Rugby

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WaratahsCrusadersAhead of the 2014 Super Rugby Final, we have decided to pick out the key head-to-heads set to take place at ANZ Stadium this Saturday.

Five players wore the red and black the last time the Crusaders won the Super Rugby title in 2008, that 20-12 win coming versus the ‘Tahs, who also had five in action. So for Rob Horne, Kurtley Beale, Wycliff Palu, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Benn Robinson the game may well have some feeling.

Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Wyatt Crockett were those on the triumphant XV in Christchurch, but will they be again?

Here we look at six battles set to take place in Sydney and judge who might have the edge in the critical areas that could decide the fixture.

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Conrad Hoffmann

Brumbies scrumhalf Conrad Hoffmann has returned to play for the Sharks in this year’s Currie Cup, the Durban team announced via their official website.

The 26-year-old played for the Sharks between 2011 and 2012 after joining from Western Province.

His career was hampered by injuries before getting a lifeline at the Brumbies this year. However, a lack of game time at the Australian side has seen Hoffmann return to the Sharks ahead of the Currie Cup season.

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The Brumbies believe they can be the first Super Rugby team to tap into the American market, with coach Stephen Larkham to go on a research mission to the US to evaluate untouched talent at universities.

The two-time champions are setting up a “USA Brumbies” academy system based at Arizona State University. Potential recruits will train in the US with the aim of earning a Super Rugby spot.

Larkham and commercial academy manager Nick Leah will fly to the US in September for camps in New Jersey, Minnesota and Arizona to find the best talent for the program.

It’s part of an academy relationship the Brumbies have set up with international teams, which already includes the Papua New Guinea national side and Japanese team Kubota.

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The inspiring scene of the movie Invictus came to life on the Waratah’s training pitch.

It was like a scene out of the movie Invictus.

After the Waratah’s final training session before Saturday’s Super Rugby final, Adam Ashley-Cooper dropped to a knee with the entire squad huddled around him, arm in arm, and recited a poem he wrote himself.

The rhyming stanza lasted for 20 minutes and was met with rapturous applause at its conclusion.

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TEMPER, TEMPER: Waratahs coach Michael Cheika is known to get hot under the collar on occasion.

The Waratahs trained in the open in Sydney today and the pressure on coach Michael Cheika was obvious as he oversaw the team’s final significant practice session before Saturday’s Super Rugby final against the Crusaders.

Already on the equivalent of a good behaviour bond after incurring a suspended six-month ban by SANZAR for abusing a cameraman during the Waratahs’ loss to the Sharks in Durban, the notoriously volatile head coach was again irritated when a photographer took images of lineout drills.

“What if I come to your work and start f…king photographing you?” Cheika shouted at the photographer situated behind the goal posts at the Kippax ground near Allianz Stadium.

That message got through but soon afterwards the 47-year-old noticed another photographer at the other end of the field, prompting Cheika – in more conciliatory tones – to ask the Waratahs’ media manager to warn him to stop shooting.

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Phil Waugh believes that the Waratah pack can dominate the Crusaders

Former Waratahs captain Phil Waugh says the Waratahs pack can “dominate” the Crusaders in the crucial forward battle, if their mental game is spot on.

Waugh, the state’s most-capped player, rejected speculation from sections of the New Zealand media that the seven-time Super Rugby champions would have the Waratahs on toast at set-pieces in Saturday’s final at ANZ Stadium.

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RELAXED: Crusaders midfielder Ryan Crotty prepares to board the plane to Sydney for the Super Rugby final against the Waratahs.

He barely blinked during the white-knuckled flight over the Southern Alps and Ryan Crotty isn’t worried about what lies ahead in Sydney, either.

Strong westerly winds caused lively turbulence for the Crusaders’ Air New Zealand jet as it flew over the South Island’s spine yesterday, resulting in the pilot reducing altitude and slightly deviating the flight path to give his passengers a smoother voyage.

Given some of the hairy situations they have endured on the field the Crusaders have become accustomed to wild rides, so like his team-mates Crotty could only fasten his seat belt and wait for the bumpy ride to end.

It’s that sort of resolve coach Todd Blackadder will want from his men during Saturday night’s Super Rugby grand final against the Waratahs.

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Richie McCaw eyes toughest of Sydney test

It couldn’t be a more familiar sight. The Crusaders, Super Rugby’s most successful team, arriving to play in another final and Richie McCaw, the most capped All Black ever, sporting a freshly stitched gash under his eye.

The team from Christchurch is after its eighth title and, even away from home, bookmakers are taking three times the money from punters on a Crusaders win.

The Crusaders have history on their side, having beaten the Waratahs in two previous Super Rugby finals.

But this time they are in Sydney, where they haven’t played all season, and McCaw is paying no attention to past records.

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Stephen Larkham

Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham

He has played just five games in two seasons, but the ACT Brumbies are keen to start negotiations with injured Wallabies captain David Pocock to keep him in Canberra beyond next year’s World Cup.

The Brumbies are already planning for the future just days after being bundled out of Super Rugby title contention by the Waratahs.

Coach Stephen Larkham revealed his intent to start negotiations with Pocock, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander and Pat McCabe, whose contracts expire at the end of next season.

Larkham also hopes to have his back-room staff finalised in the next month, including appointing another assistant coach with breakdown expertise to replace director of rugby Laurie Fisher and a team manager.

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Out in force: The Waratahs are hoping to create a sea of blue at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night against the Crusaders.

A State of Origin-esque sea of blue, an Australian Super Rugby crowd record and the biggest take-up of corporate packages since the Manchester United exhibition match say ANZ Stadium will be the furthest thing from a ”neutral venue” when the Waratahs take on the Crusaders this Saturday.

As Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder and countless New Zealand pundits latched on to the notion the All Blacks’ 54 per cent win record at the Homebush Bay venue would take the sting out of the Waratahs’ home ground advantage this weekend, match organisers were putting the finishing touches to a plan to ensure it will do anything but.

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Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder

Todd Blackadder cannot believe the Waratahs have ditched their fortress to chase the almighty dollar.

If Crusaders coach Blackadder was in counterpart Michael Cheika’s shoes he would never allow anyone, or any amount of cash, to persuade him to give up home advantage for a Super Rugby grand final.

Rather than play Saturday night’s much-anticipated match at Allianz Stadium, where they have been unbeaten all season, the Waratahs have agreed to relocate to the less familiar – but bigger – ANZ Stadium at Olympic.

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Injured Waratahs captain Dave Dennis has revealed some of the secrets which have helped the Waratahs make the grand final this year.

Dennis gave an insight into the Waratahs unique strength and conditioning programme as well as the culture which Michael Cheika has created.

“We have been challenged probably physically more than we ever have as a playing group by Cheik. I think it’s well documented the work we did in the pre season running up hills around Coogee or running around Centennial Park.”

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Big Will Skelton

The men they call “Big Will” and “Jackpot” could hold the key to Waratahs glory against the Crusaders on Saturday, so great has been their impact this season.

Giant lock Will Skelton has been nothing short of a revelation. At 135kg and 203cm, the 22-year-old does wrecking ball with finesse.

While Jacques Potgieter, the South African enforcer with flowing locks, has earned cult hero status at Moore Park.

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Nemani Nadolo

OLD BOY: Nemani Nadolo taking part in a Waratahs training session back when he was on their books.

Nemani Nadolo’s thick Australian accent is just one tell-tale sign the New South Wales Waratahs’ decision to let the rampaging winger slip through their fingers could come back to haunt them on Saturday.

The Fiji international crossed the Tasman Sea with his Crusaders side today intent on clinching their eighth Super Rugby title in the final against the Waratahs, who cut him loose after a solitary season in 2009.

“When you are unwanted and have got to go elsewhere and find opportunities I guess when the door shut there you do feel a bit sad,” Nadolo told Television New Zealand of his dumping by the Waratahs before the Crusaders flew to Sydney.

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Henry Speight

Henry Speight

AustraliaWinger Henry Speight will be sidelined for a month by a hamstring injury and has been replaced in the Wallabies squad for the Rugby Championship by Peter Betham.

Fijian-born Speight was included in the squad last week despite not becoming eligible to play for Australia on residency grounds until 11 September, halfway through the tournament.

The tackle-busting winger sustained the injury in the second half of the Brumbies’ Super Rugby semifinal defeat to the Waratahs last Saturday.

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Tatafu Polota-Nau

HEAD STRONG: Waratahs hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau has learnt to think about tackling instead of diving in head first.

Tatafu Polota-Nau eventually realised kamikaze-style tackling was jeopardising his lifespan as a professional footballer, so the Crusaders should be relieved he has toned down a suicidal approach to defending ahead of Saturday’s Super Rugby final.

The last time Polota-Nau played the Crusaders in 2012, the now 29-year-old was prone to suffering self-inflicted damage – the trade off when the abrasive NSW Waratahs and Wallabies hooker aimed up on a ball carrier or hit a ruck.

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WaratahsThe Waratahs have reached the final of the 2014 Super Rugby Tournament.

One may be excused for thinking that the team consists of 23 players and maybe half a dozen more as back up, but that’s not quite the full picture.

Ever wondered how many people are really behind the scenes to see that the 23 on the field are primed and ready to go?

We take an exclusive look at the full management team of the Waratahs.

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WaratahsCrusadersA look back at a handful of classic contests between the Waratahs and the Crusaders this century.

2001: Waratahs 25-22 Crusaders

The last time the Waratahs defeated the Crusaders was way back in 2001 when the Waratahs ended the Crusaders hopes of defending their Super 12 title and kept their own semi-final hopes alive.

In the tight match-up it took over 35-minutes for the first points to be scored before the Waratahs lead 10-3 into half-time.

The Crusaders hit the Waratahs hard during the second half to take the lead 17-15 for the first time during the match, but a converted try and penalty to Matt Burke put the Waratahs out of reach with a 25-17 lead, while a missed conversion to Ben Blair saw the side fall three-points short 25-22.

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Greg Growden

Greg Growden is the Sydney Morning Herald’s senior rugby writer. He has been reporting on the game for over thirty years. He is also the author of nine books including A Wayward Genius, which was described by The Guardian’s Frank Keating as being among the 100 best sporting books of the twentieth century. His most recent book is Jack Fingleton; The man who stood up to Bradman.

Right from the start, covering New South Wales Waratahs has been a rollicking, unpredictable, wisecracking experience.

It was May 1981, the Sydney Morning Herald’s rugby writer, Jim Webster, was on the other side of the country covering a golf tournament, and someone – anyone – was required to cover the NSW-Manawatu match.

The only person who had not hidden himself away from the gaze of the Herald sports editor was the misfit in the drip-dry shirt completing the greyhound form guide; and so five minutes later I was off to T.G. Millner Field.

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BlackadderIn the mould of Blackadder, no not that one, you are thinking of Todd, I’m talking about the other one, Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has a cunning plan… to emulate Jake White and get his possible reasons for potential failure on record 4 days before kick off.

White complained about how skewered and unfair the competition is for the sides ending outside of the top 2 spots. White though, as a cunning strategist, is small fry compared to the brilliance that is Cheika.

Cheika, realizing that because his side ended top of the combined log and therefor he couldn’t use the “we didn’t get an extra week’s rest” excuse, had to dig really deep, and boy, he didn’t disappoint.

In a move that would put Kasperov to shame, he has hatched a plan so cunning that not even Blofeldt could have thought it out.

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Matthew Burke

Matthew Burke

With just one match of the Super Rugby season remaining, who have been the standout players for the year?

Matthew Burke reveals his top 12.

Choosing ten players proved tough, so I called on my chief researchers to help me out and, not surprisingly, the majority of the players that feature have played a part in the finals. We got down to 12, so here they are, in no particular order.

Do you agree with his choices?

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 Nathan Charles

Nathan Charles: Extended his deal with Western Force

Australia hooker Nathan Charles has signed a new deal to stay with the Western Force until the end of 2016.

Charles started every game for the Perth side this season and was rewarded for his club form with a first call into the Wallabies squad, making his debut against France in Melbourne earlier this summer.

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Michael Cheika

HAPPY MAN: Waratahs coach Michael Cheika shares a joke with his players at training this week.

The coach who has overseen the revival of the Waratahs declined to ratchet up the pressure on Crusaders counterpart Todd Blackadder today, by doubting the seven-time Super Rugby champions are stressed from not winning the title since 2008.

Michael Cheika appeared in a typically jovial pre-match mood as the Waratahs continued their preparations for Saturday’s clash between the competition’s first and second-ranked teams at ANZ Stadium.

During a wide-ranging preamble, Cheika neglected to play mind games with Blackadder, another former hard-nosed forward.

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Lionel Cronjé

Lionel Cronjé

The Sharks have landed the services of former Baby Bok Lionel Cronjé.

Cronjé, 25, represented the Brumbies this past season but according to the Sydney Morning Herald’s website, the utility back has signed a two-year deal with the Durban-based Sharks.

He will join them before the start of this year’s Currie Cup competition.

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Richie McCaw

Richie McCaw

Crusaders flanker Richie McCaw knows from past experience, both sweet and bitter, that a crucial moment can decide Saturday’s Super Rugby final result against the Waratahs in Sydney.

“When it comes down to one or two moments, the teams that are good enough to take those opportunities are the ones that win,” the All Blacks captain said.

“If you drop your guard for one or two moments, you’ll come second.”

He will be making his eighth Super final appearance, the first being in 2002 against the Waratahs when the Crusaders won the competition for the fourth time.

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Australian Flag“OUR support goes with the Australian side from here on in – we’d like to see them bring it home,” and with that Brumbies captain Ben Mowen pledged his support for the Waratahs.

It’s a situation unique to Super Rugby within Australian sport where fierce provincial ties are up against a sense of national pride, where this week rugby fans will be encouraged to overlook their dislike for the Waratahs for the greater good of the local game.

The Waratahs will on Saturday host a Super Rugby final for the very first time when they take on long-time nemesis, the Crusaders, at ANZ Stadium.

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WaratahsThe Waratahs have predictably named an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday’s Super Rugby final against the Crusaders at ANZ Stadium as they seek to convert an eight-match winning streak into a maiden title.

With no injury concerns following last Saturday’s 26-8 semifinal win over the Brumbies, head coach Michael Cheika has retained the 23-man squad that provided the success-starved franchise with a historic home final.

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Steve Hansen

TOUGH CHOICES: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen naming his squad for The Rugby Championship.

If some of the Crusaders’ players needed any extra motivation to win Saturday’s Super Rugby grand final, then All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has provided it.

The Crusaders have eight players in the 31-man Rugby Championship test squad but three omissions were the talking point yesterday.

Hansen dropped Crusaders openside flanker Matt Todd, midfield back Ryan Crotty and first five-eighth Colin Slade.

Todd and Slade have been keeping All Blacks aces Richie McCaw and Dan Carter out of their preferred positions in the Super Rugby arena.

Hansen rang the trio to explain.

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Andrew Mehrtens

Andrew Mehrtens

There’s something different about these Waratahs, who stand between the Crusaders and their eighth Super Rugby title, and I think I’ve worked out what it is.

They’ve finally stopped telling everyone how good they are; and just set about proving it on the field.

Over the years the drums would always get beaten whenever the Waratahs had a big pre-season or early season, and it was so often just noise. Inevitably they’d fail to live up to their own hype.

This year, conversely, they’ve done the most when they’ve said the least.

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