WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — An air of unfinished business hangs over next weekend's Super Rugby final between the New South Wales Waratahs and Crusaders after both negotiated potentially difficult semifinals on Saturday.
The Waratahs beat bitter inter-state rivals the ACT Brumbies 26-8 to earn the right to host the final as they bid for their first Super Rugby title while the Crusaders outclassed South Africa's Sharks 38-6 to move within a match of their eighth championship.
The Crusaders will be making its 11th final appearance, the Waratahs only its third and significantly they have met once before in a final...in 2008 when the Crusaders captured the most recent of their seven titles, denying the Waratahs their first.
Saturday's final now offers New South Wales the chance to claim that first, overdue title and the Crusaders to win their first title under current head coach Todd Blackadder.
The manner of their semifinals victories was as divergent as the nature of their paths to the final: the Crusaders trounced the out-of-form Sharks by five tries to nil, scoring four of those tries among a span of 22 unanswered points in the second half.
The Waratahs faced a much sterner challenge from the Brumbies in the most recent manifestation of an acrimonious rivalry. In winning by three tries to one they demonstrated the twin planks of the campaign which has carried them to the final: they were both the best attacking and best defensive team in Super Rugby in finishing first at the end of the regular season.
They showed that refined attacking sense in each of their three tries but especially in the opportunist tries to winger Alofa Alofa, from an intercept, in the first half and center Kurtley Beale in the second which gave them a decisive lead.
They then gave that attacking bent full expression in their final try, to flyhalf Bernard Foley, a few minutes before fulltime as backs and forwards combined in a movement which sprawled over more than 75 meters. Foley touched down for the try that clinched the match and added the conversion to finish with an individual tally of 16 points.
The Waratahs' new and hard-nosed defensive ethic was also on display as they limited the Brumbies to a single try, scored by winger Henry Speight in the 30th minute, though their opponents had a heavy supply of possession and were camped within their 22 for much of the second half.
Captain and Wallabies flanker Michael Hooper marshalled the defense and made several of the punishing tackles that forced turnovers when the Brumbies looked most threatening.
"We talked before the game about taking opportunities but we had to make them tonight," Hooper said. "We came up with a few, I won't say lucky tries but tries we built under pressure and we take that.
"Defense wins you games and it was really good tonight. I was really pleased to see the big boys doing the hard work.
"We built as the game went on. Set piece at the start was questionable...we worked on that and got rewards in the end so for us it's really positive. We've just got to get that start a bit better."
Brumbies captain Ben Mowen, who played his last match for the franchise on Saturday before heading to France, saluted the Waratahs' effort.
"We had more than enough opportunities down inside their 22 to come away with a lot of points and you've got to give credit to the way the New South Wales guys held on," he said.
"They didn't panic and dismantled our maul, which has been a strength of ours, and they're obviously the best defensive side in the competition for a reason.
"They dealt with the pressure a lot better than us. Little moments in the game really cost us."
The Crusaders produced a clinical performance under pressure as they dismantled the Sharks in Christchurch. Each of the elements of the Sharks' game, which had made the Sharks formidable during the regular season, failed them under pressure on Saturday.
The Crusaders met the challenge of their set piece, matching the scrum around which their game pivots, and disrupting their lineout. At the same time, the Sharks' vaunted kicking game collapsed, presenting the Crusaders with possession and a series of counter-attacking opportunities from misdirected clearances.
Captain Kieran Read scored the only try of the first half as the Crusaders maintained a frantic pace to stretch and finally break the Sharks' defense. With the defensive wall broken down they ran in four more tries — to Nemani Nadolo, Jimmy McNicholl, Willi Heinz and Matt Todd — in the second half.
"The guys were so clear and they executed the game plan and really brought that finals pressure which probably told in the second half," Blackadder said. "The first 20 minutes was frantic and as the game wore on the confidence was certainly there."
The Crusaders and Waratahs did not meet during the regular season and Saturday's final offers the first chance to measure the strengths of the repeat champion against a team in the best form in its history.