Final – Super Rugby 2014

Waratahs vs Crusaders

At the end of May 2013, an angry Michael Cheika vented frustration at refereeing decisions made in the closing minutes of a 23-22 loss at the Crusaders:

“I think everyone can make their own assessment. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work it out…..I don’t want to be whinger but what can you do? I don’t know, maybe the Waratahs aren’t supposed to win here. Maybe that’s the rules…….I have got no credibility; I am just a newbie here. I have got nothing but I have got a team that is prepared to put everything out on the paddock.

And if we are a soft target because maybe people are not used to us being winners, then we will have to change that by coming back harder every time.

 

That dedication to hard work and changing the culture of the side has been evident since Cheika took over and has been the foundation for this year’s success.

In 2012 they only outscored opponents 2nd half in 2/16 matches and lost 8 games by 1-6 points. In 2014, they average a 10 point advantage in the 2nd half and have outscored teams in 13/17 games. Rather than wilting and losing the close matches, they now dominate the final quarter.

Smart recruitment of players such as Beale, Alofa, Phipps, Potgieter, Hooper and Folau over the past 2 seasons has been crucial but as important has been the personnel selected to coach the side. Cheika along with the experienced Alan Gaffney, who he worked with at Leinster, have brought in several individuals that played a big role in changing the fortunes of the side.

Nathan Grey made 94 appearances for the Tahs from 1998-2005 and played in the 2005 final defeat against the Crusaders (Hoiles, Carter and McCaw all played in that game too). Having spent time coaching at both Kyuden Voltex and the Melbourne Rebels, he returned to the Tahs this year to oversee defence and contact skills. As was seen last weekend against the Brumbies, the NSW defence gets off the line quickly and smashes the ball carrier – with levels of aggression that remind of how Grey used to crunch attackers in the midfield.

Daryl Gibson played for the Crusaders from 1996-2002, winning 4 finals. He then spent a season at Bristol, 4 years at Leicester and ended his player career at Glasgow (was also backs coach there). Leicester offered him a head coach position but  he didn’t want to commit to a 3 year contract (having just had triplets) and instead returned to New Zealand in 2008. Robbie Deans had accepted the Australia job which meant there was a position going at the Crusaders and he joined the new coaching team with Mark Hammett and Todd Blackadder.

After 4 seasons, he was told that the Crusaders would be restructuring and that his new role would focus solely on defence. Gibson resigned in October 2012 and while all comments in the press were polite enough, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest he was far from happy from having his job changed.

By November he had been recruited by the Tahs, with Cheika telling the official site:

Daryl is the guy who most fitted the vision we have for the team and for NSW rugby. The new values that we are setting down he believes in already and that was the first thing we considered. To enact the change we want to make here, we need to change everything. I wanted someone fresh. Someone that guys here haven’t had much to do with or been coached by. We need to change the voices, change the approach

The team have topped the majority of attacking stats such as defenders beaten, metres carried etc this year, scoring 55 tries and picking up 9 try bonus points. They only conceded 272 points too, so possessed both the best attack and defence.

As might be expected, the halfbacks have played an influential role and it is interesting how close both may have been to playing in Melbourne instead this season.

Phipps has stated that he would have been happy to stay at the Rebels but learnt he may not have been first choice with the team also talking to Luke Burgess. For their part, the Rebels (or ‘sources’ close to them) suggested he had priced himself out of staying. Phipps denied that and pointed out that when he did leave, the Burgess deal was resolved remarkably quickly.

At the same time, Foley had signed a letter of intent to join the Rebels. When Phipps learnt of this he contacted Foley, who he knew well from Sevens and Sydney University Colts and advised him to stay at the Tahs. Both players missed out on International selection through the age group levels so may have felt they have had to work harder to get where they are now – traits that a coach like Cheika would appreciate.

Phipps has played 1183 of a potential 1360 minutes this season, Foley 1347, Beale 1312 and Ashley-Cooper 1325 so there has definitely been continuity at 9,10,12 and 13 throughout the season. That stands in contrast to a team like the Chiefs that made changes every round.

On the Green and Gold Rugby podcast this week, Dave Dennis referenced the Tahs using SPARTATrac software in their performance training. On the company’s site there is a quote from Cheika saying: “It designs a set of exercises that are in tune with getting the player to the strength pattern, or movement pattern, to the player we want in that position”.
That software may have played a part in the team keeping the majority of their squad (bar Dennis himself sadly) fit for the whole season.

 

 

In the past, home advantage has been significant in Super Rugby finals – with 14/18 home wins, but another trend is that the side with the best attack (in terms of points scored throughout the regular season) has usually won.

attack defence

In 13/18 seasons the top rated attack has won the final and on the 3 occasions the best defence won – they were also top for points scored that season. There have been 8/18 winners with a defence rated 6th or lower but only 4/18 with an attack worse than 2nd.

Tahs have won 9/9 home games this season by an average score of 35-13 and go into this final on an 8 match winning run at all venues. Their strong 2nd half defence on their own turf was evident again and they have only conceded 32 points in total after the break in those 9 home matches.

They have at least a 66% home win rate against 10 of the current Super Rugby sides, with the exception being Stormers 57%, Force 50%, Reds 45% and Crusaders 37.5%.

Waratahs have lost the last 11 games at all venues against the Crusaders, with the last home win coming in 2003. Since 2001, the average score in Sydney has been 28-29, with the 2 Tahs wins coming by 3 points and 4 defeats by 6,1,4 and 4 points -so they have been close contests.

Justin Marshall has suggested in the NZ Herald that the Tahs have nullified home advantage by moving the game from the SFS to Homebush. His view is that “greed” has negated the Tahs’ “familarity, comfort zone and fortress mentality“. Todd Blackadder has also said that he is pleased his team are playing at a ‘neutral stadium‘.

The Tahs first moved a game to the Olympic Stadium in 2009 – a 13-17 loss against the Crusaders. They have played 10 matches in total there (winning 6), with the Brumbies and Reds the regular opponents since 2010. The winning margins this season at the venue were 27 and 31 points and the Tahs have only been outscored 2nd half once there in the last 9 matches.

Given they have played 10/46 matches there since 2009 – it can’t really be called an unfamiliar venue and with ticket sales going very well, there is the opportunity to create a special atmosphere. With the Roosters playing the Dragons at the SFS at the same time as this match and an agreement in place to play a certain number of games there per season, the accusations of greed are off track too. Instead the comments could serve to motivate the players or indeed the fans who may seek to prove it is anything but a ‘neutral’ ground.

The visitors last Championship was won in 2008 against the Tahs, a match that featured current players Carter, McCaw, Ellis, Read and Crockett as well as Beale, Horne, Palu, Polota-Nau and Robinson for the hosts.

Having emphasised the importance of playing at home in finals, it is often raised that the Crusaders did win 3 away titles from 1998-2000. However, since the 2000 final away win at the Brumbies, they have lost 8/9 away knockout matches by an average score of 26-21.

It is also true that since 2000, they have lost 12/12 away games (reg season and semi-finals / finals) against the team finishing top on the table, by an average score of 32-21.

In recent seasons, a combination of missing All Blacks, a slow start and /or poor away form has meant missing out on a home semi-final. A dip in the Chiefs performance this year and 6/8 away wins proved the difference this campaign and ensured a conference top spot.

They did win 4/4 away matches outside of New Zealand in 2014, but those were all  games against the bottom 4 sides on the table. In total they played the teams in 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th away this season. They won by 1 point at the Chiefs (5th), 2 at the Highlanders (6th) and lost by 7 at the Canes (7th).

A difference this season for the Crusaders has been the addition of a powerful Fijian to the backline. One of the many recipients of the ‘next Jonah Lomu’ tag , Ratu Nasiganiyavi (son of Isei and cousin of Lote Tuqiri), grew up in Brisbane and played for Queensland Schoolboys alongside the likes of Quade Cooper and Will Genia in 2005. He missed out on a place with the Reds and ended up playing for Perth Spirit in 2007 in the Mazda Australian Rugby Championship.

A move to Sydney to “rebuild” his rugby and self-belief worked out and he received attention after strong performances for the Australia U20 side and Randwick in 2008. The Tahs signed him to a 2 year deal but injury saw him lose motivation – (in his own words). While he impressed in a match against Fiji Warriors in 2010 he was eventually released without ever making a Super Rugby appearance.

Now going by the name of Nemani Nadolo to honour his mother’s name, he moved from Randwick to Manly Marlins. His new coach Phil Blake (recently appointed Leicester defence coach) contacted Western Force with a view to getting him a Super Rugby contract and perhaps ensuring he would stay in the Australian rugby system. That attempt didn’t prove successful and by the 2010/11 season he was playing for Bourgoin in the Top 14 and making his debut for Fiji (against Australia).

Bourgoin’s financial problems meant they couldn’t keep hold of him and having scored against Exeter in the Amlin Cup in 2010, he ended up at the Premiership club. That didn’t prove a long stay and an issue over which passport he was registered with and ‘personal / family’ reasons saw him depart in May 2011. A move to Japan and the NEC Green Rockets proved more of a success as can be seen with 44 tries in 37 games.

 

After missing out on signing Savea and with Fruean moving to the Chiefs, the Crusaders had a need for a powerful back this season. As can be seen with the majority of Top 14 sides or Speight at Brumbies, Osborne at Highlanders, Tikoirotuma formerly of Chiefs in Super Rugby etc– there is a common theme of teams having at least 1 Fijian outside back to break the line. After discussions between assistant coach Tabai Matson (who coached in Japan with Yamaha Jubilo) and NEC coach Greg Cooper (former All Blacks fullback), they decided to take a punt on Nadolo, despite knowing he would miss the start of the season.

That ‘risk’ has been rewarded with 11 tries in 13 appearances while on the International stage he has recently equalled the record for tries in consecutive matches with 8. The Crusaders averaged 18 points scored in the 6 matches (won 2/6) he didn’t start this season and 34 points when he did start (won 10/11). There will be plenty of other factors for those scoring stats – but he has clearly made a difference. His last 5 appearances have produced 5 tries, 58 carries for a total of 513m and 27 defenders beaten.

A 5 try, 32 point win over the Sharks has to be respected, but how poorly Jake White’s side played does have to be included in the reckoning. As may have been expected before kick-off, the Crusaders played at a high tempo and looked to move around the big Sharks pack. Having a player with Read’s skillset to both run the lineout / perform traditional loose forward duties and then also appear on the wing offloading or beating defenders is also a huge bonus.

Since Read’s debut in the 2007 season, there have only been 26 of a possible 128 Crusaders games that have seen him, McCaw and Carter all start. Injuries and sabbaticals explain that low number but it may be a surprise that they have only won 2 of the last 10 away games with those 3 all starting.

What is interesting about the Crusaders is that in big games they often look to take on an opponent in their areas of strength – in that case it meant the scrum and kicks from hand. The Sharks struggled under the high ball and lacked accuracy in anything they launched up. While the hosts finished them off in the final quarter, they will have felt in control far earlier in the match – when it became evident that the Sharks weren’t able to execute their main (only?) game plan. That does mean the visitors could well be fresher than the Tahs, who were in more of a battle with the Brumbies.

The hosts absorbed plenty of pressure in their semi-final and there have been reports saying that a different referee may have carded them for persistent penalties or that Brumbies would have won with more accurate goal kicking. That may be true, but on the other hand you could say that the Tahs did their homework / adapted to referee and were happy to cough up penalties knowing the Brumbies were either going to turn down shots at goal or be less likely to score than usual if they did attempt them. In many ways it was similar to Crusaders performances of old.

The Crusaders conceded 13 penalties against the Sharks, missed 5 kicks at goal and had a tackle success rate of 79%. On the very rare occasions that Jake White’s side did run from deep they actually had some joy which will have been noted by the Tahs.

The Tahs were pinged 16 times last week and it is unlikely the Crusaders would either turn down as many kickable opportunities or make the same number of trips to an opposition 22 without picking up points, as the Brumbies did. While the hosts will continue to back their defence, they will know that giving players like Read that much possession could well see a different outcome this weekend.

The other issue is the set piece. The Tahs had a 91% scrum last season and 80% lineout (according Opta stats). This year it is 86% and 83% respectively compared to 89% and 89% for the Crusaders. With Dennis out, having less options to throw to than the visitors and the threat of Whitelock stealing – the Crusaders will surely target this area. Their tries against the Highlanders a few weeks ago showcased their danger in the driving maul.

That tactic will of course require accuracy in the kicking game and in turn comes with risk as getting it wrong will feed a waiting Folau and co. It is also the case that the Chiefs won 2 titles with a lineout operating at around the 80% mark and knocked out the Crusaders twice.

 

 

 

In NZ Stuff there was a line from Dan Carter saying that finals weren’t won by special moments and instead – “it’s just the team that works the hardest and wants it.”. Part of the overhaul of the Tahs was to establish that attitude too and while Crusaders 1-12 winning margin at 3.5 is tempting, will be backing the Tahs to win at 1.8 or better.

Cheika will have picked up valuable lessons about how to approach a final from his time at Leinster and in what looks to be a close match, the fact that the Tahs finished 1st over the regular season, were top for attack and defence and are at home can’t be dismissed.

The head to head record doesn’t look great – but while it can be useful as a guide there is a danger of reading too much into it here. The Reds had lost 11 of the previous 13 matches against the Crusaders before the 2011 final and the Chiefs 7 of 8 at home against them before the 2012 semi-final. The Tahs, like the Reds and Chiefs before them have benefited from a change in coach and performed far better than in previous years, so adjustments have to be made to any views based on historic results.

There has been a card shown in 8/9 Tahs home games and 5/8 Crusaders away games this season. Referee Joubert handed out cards in 6/14 matches and while he ended the season with matches having high penalty counts (25+) and no cards, he was quick to sin-bin a Chiefs player 2 weeks ago in the qualifier (3rd minute). If he remains consistent to that level, then would expect a card in this match.

Tahs have been officiated by him 8 times since 2009, winning 2/2 home games and with a card shown in 5/8 matches. Crusaders have been refereed 11 times in same period, winning 9 and 5/7 away. He showed a card in 3 of those 11 games. There have been no cards in the last 5 finals.

Would think Folau (2.6) and Nadolo (2.88) will be the popular tryscorer picks but elsewhere Read is 6.5, Todd 7.0 and Foley 5.5

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 Jacques Potgieter, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tola Latu, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Jeremy Tilse, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Mitch Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbon, 23 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
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufau, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl