Waratahs have a soft underbelly up front
August 1, 2014
The Crusaders' Kieran Read is building into top form after his concussion issues © Getty Images
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Expect a massive Crusaders concentration on their set-piece for the Super Rugby final against New South Wales Waratahs at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Saturday.
The Crusaders' semi-final win over the Sharks was pretty comprehensive after targeting the Sharks' strength in the set-piece: the Crusaders did more than just compete, they stepped up and dominated; and that to my mind is what the Crusaders build their whole ethos around.
The things they can practise and get better, like the set-piece, they do; and they are so organised there and so structured. No wonder, really, the Sharks had nothing to control them.
Certainly the Sharks had to deal with the travel factor, but you can take nothing away from the Crusaders. Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Kieran Read, the three best players in the world, stepped up and played outstandingly.
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McCaw was like a spring chicken. He was just everywhere. I know there has been talk recently about his age and all the rest, but that was stellar McCaw at his best. And his performance showed the mindset of the Crusaders. They've stepped up for finals rugby. And if they can step up again for the final - and given what I saw from the Waratahs in their semi-final against the Brumbies - I don't think the Waratahs have got a show.
The soft underbelly of the Waratahs team is in the forward pack, and I think the Crusaders will target the forward pack on Saturday night and play their own game.
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The Waratahs-Brumbies game was messy, and the Brumbies at one point exposed the Waratahs scrum. I am sure the Crusaders will have taken notice of that because they have an even better scrum; they will target the Waratahs' scrum, which has been their Achilles heel for most of the season.
There has been a lot of talk about the Waratahs' defence; but it doesn't matter how good your defence is if the opposition gets physical dominance because your opponents will find chinks in your armour. Defence is good when you are going forward or when you've got the opposition going back. But when the Crusaders have the Waratahs going back on defence, they will crack their hosts eventually.
It will take the forwards to step up for the Crusaders, and I think they will; and that will be the blueprint for winning the game. Discipline will come into it, but the Crusaders have got a good defence, too, and they've got a good structure - as shown by a pretty complete performance against the Sharks.
Away from the forwards, Nemani Nadolo is simply a world-class back. He's a special player and I think the big chequebooks are out around the world to try to get him. He's certainly hot property at the moment.
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Waratahs fullback Israel Folau has had a great year and is a dangerous player, but I thought the Brumbies provided something of a blueprint in how to shut him down. And, in fact, we saw the Blues do that when they beat the Waratahs earlier in the competition. The ball never got to him with any space because the Tahs' opponents targeted the linkmen.
Forget targeting Folau; it's too late when he touches the ball. The Brumbies targeted the distributors, and the ball never got to him; as a result, he never really came into that game. That's something the Crusaders will have seen. Shutting down Kurtley Beale, and getting in his face, is a requirement for them.
One of the other feature clashes in the game will pit Matt Todd against Michael Hooper. Todd has been playing some fantastic rugby, and he is regarded as unlucky to have missed the All Blacks' squad for The Rugby Championship. But he can only continue to play well. The guy can't do any more than he has been doing, and he just has to do it again and show what class he is. Unfortunately, his problem is he wasn't the one who got the first invitation into the All Blacks; while he is playing some pretty good rugby, and rightfully deserves to wear an All Blacks jersey, it just goes to show what a wealth of talent New Zealand have among flankers.
Whichever way you look at it, the final will be a great appetiser for the first Rugby Championship match in Sydney a fortnight later.
Corey Flynn produced a career-best effort against the Sharks © Getty Images
Where is the next Tony Woodcock?
The injury that has ruled Tony Woodcock out of the early stages of The Rugby Championship, and possibly the whole series, has illustrated the lack of depth at loose-head prop in New Zealand.
We have talked all season about hooker, and who might be coming through to replace Keven Mealamu, but loose-head prop is a real concern. There's no clear stand-out among the contenders.
Wyatt Crockett is next in line, but he is a distant second to Woodcock; and he is not pushing a fit Woodcock. With all the scrum coaches in New Zealand, it is an indictment that we haven't been able to produce a natural successor to Woodcock. And the situation needs attention because even Crockett is 31 years old.
Crockett has to really step up in the Super Rugby final against the Waratahs because he alone, and the way he plays, is the only thing that can take the All Blacks jersey away from him. Joe Moody is not going to start for New Zealand as he's on the Crusaders' bench. The scrum is going to be very important for the Crusaders in Sydney, and Crockett needs to spearhead that.
Rightly or wrongly, he attracts criticism because he's got a long spine and doesn't look right half the time; but he is a very strong man and a hard prop to contain when he gets his position right and gets underneath you. I'm sure he'll know what is expected of him.
Do you agree or disagree with Craig Dowd? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below or by posting on Twitter using the hashtag #SoftUnderbelly?
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