All Blacks No 8 Kieran Read will give the Crusaders an edge in the Vodacom Super Rugby final in Sydney on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Always the bridesmaid, and never the bride. The Waratahs are Super Rugby's perennial nearly men, and I suspect that they will finish yet another campaign as also-rans.
They've been the most consistent team in Super Rugby this season. They boast several of the tournament's top performers in flanker Michael Hooper, utility forward Jacques Potgieter and fullback Israel Folau. They will also have the advantage of hosting this decider in Sydney, a city that has witnessed nothing but Waratahs wins in 2014.
So why the doubt? The Waratahs may be a fine side, but the Crusaders have moved up a gear in the past three weeks. Their collective improvement has had everything to do with the return to form of four veteran All Blacks, namely Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Israel Dagg and captain Kieran Read.
The Crusaders have everything to prove. As a franchise, they have won the most Super Rugby titles (seven). And yet, they haven't won the competition since 2008, and are yet to win a title under coach Todd Blackadder. This will motivate McCaw, Carter, Dagg and Read; decorated players who have already won it all at Test level.
McCaw should have a big influence on the breakdown, while Carter's line and goal-kicking will allow the Crusaders to win territory and bank points in increments of three. Dagg will threaten from the back and aid Carter in the battle of the boot. But the man who could make the biggest difference on Saturday is the skipper.
A concussion ailment has limited Read's game time with the Crusaders in 2014. However, when he has played, he has made a big impact. This much was evident in the final league match against the Highlanders, and then in the semi-final against the Sharks.
Read is an excellent option at the back of the lineout, as well as a no-nonsense defender. When his tight five provides him with a platform, he can be a devastating runner, as was witnessed last Saturday when he powered through a Paul Jordaan tackle attempt, and beat the cover defence to score.
The Crusaders have the pack to prevail in a tight contest. Who could forget the three tries they scored from the lineout drive in that final league game against the Highlanders?
Their backs certainly know how to finish. Winger Nemani Nadolo is ranked second in the tournament with 11 touchdowns.
Folau, Super Rugby's top try-scorer with 12, will be difficult to contain. The Waratahs have the most potent attack in the competition, and proved that they can defend in last week's semi-final against the Brumbies.
What they don't have is the strongest kicking game, or a pack that is as experienced and well-balanced as that of the Crusaders. And they don't have Kieran Read.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Waratahs 4, Crusaders 16
In Sydney: Waratahs 3, Crusaders 5
READ'S STATS THAT MATTER
49 – The number of metres he ran in the semi-final against the Sharks (Rank 6)
4 – The number of defenders he beat in the semi-final (Rank 2)
2 – The number of turnovers he made in the semi-final (Rank 2)
661 – The number of minutes he's played in 2014 (Rank 205)
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Stephen Hoiles, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: (two to be omitted): 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Mitchell Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 24 Matt Carraro, 25 Peter Betham.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn , 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images