Game On!   23 May 2006

Ellie van Baaren

The inaugural Super 14 final will be an all-New zealand affair after the Hurricanes narrowly beat the waratahs and the crusaders strolled past the bulls. ellie van baaren reports.

I think i need to keep on predicting the Hurricanes will lose, because they seem to like proving me wrong. Against the predictions of more pundits than myself, the Hurricanes downed the Waratahs in a tense affair at Westpac Stadium last Friday to set up an all-New Zealand final on Saturday.

I said at the beginning of the season I had a soft spot for the Hurricanes, mainly because they seemed to trip themselves up at the last hurdle.

Now they find themselves in their first Super final and looking pretty comfortable at that.

The difference between the 2006 Hurricanes and previous outfits has been the fact they have retained their backline flair without compromising on the hard grind and a disciplined game plan.

Their last two matches have seen them defend their line like a lionness protecting her cubs, denying the Waratahs tries despite the fact they were camped in the Hurricanes’ half for large parts of the game.

In the weekend’s semifinal the Wellington team managed to secure more possession than the week before, but that made the job only marginally easier. Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie is crying foul over referee Jonathan Kaplan (see below) but even he and captain Chris Whitaker had to admit that the Hurricanes deserved to win and both backed them to go all the way.

Mind you they would say that. It’s an easier pill to swallow if you were beaten by the eventual champions rather than the runners up.

The Hurricanes’ winning points came from the boot of replacement Jimmy Gopperth after the Waratahs were penalised for collapsing the scrum. The home team only scored one try, a Lome Fa’atau touchdown that came after Kaplan gave the Hurricanes the feed to a re-set scrum.

The Hurricanes emerged from the game virtually unscathed and will no doubt be fielding a largely unchanged team for this weekend’s showdown.

Just as the Waratahs are backing the Hurricanes, the defeated Bulls are betting their opponents, the Crusaders, will be too strong for the Wellington team.

As a sign of the overwhelming expectation on the red and blacks to triumph over the fourth-placed Bulls, only 26,000 people out of a capacity 35,000 turned up to watch the game. In contrast, a full house is expected for this weekend’s match.

This will be the Crusaders eighth final in 12 Super competitions and their win against the Bulls made it eight out of eight semifinal appearance and marked their 20th home win in succession. In fact the defending champions have won 34 of their last 35 home appearances. On paper at least the odds aren’t looking great for the Hurricanes.

The Crusaders won 35-15 over the Bulls, scoring five tries to the visitors’ two, with Rico Gear dotting down twice.

Even though the Crusaders were overwhelming favourites, the team expressed surprise that the Bulls played with so little imagination, going for ineffectual kicks rather than using their backline to run at the defence.

After denying that travel would be a deciding factor in the game, the Bulls’ camp was blaming travelling around the world in the same week as playing for some of their lacklustre performance.

Regardless of the reason, the Crusaders are well aware that the Hurricanes will pose a completely different challenge on Saturday.

Ma’a Nonu, Tana Umaga and Rodney So’oialo are at their best, while Lome Fa’atau is first equal on the try-scoring list for the Super 14.

After proving themselves twice against the Waratahs, the Hurricanes have definitely gained respect in their quest to take the inaugural Super 14 title, however facing the Crusaders is a huge task.

Apart from the individual brilliance of players such as Daniel Carter, Richie McCaw, Chris Jack and Leon MacDonald, the team is a machine. They are well-oiled and frighteningly disciplined, especially when it comes to the business end of the season.

Plus, much as the Hurricanes would like to deny it, experience at this level does count for something. They will be trying as much as possible to treat this match just like any other sudden death game in a bid to combat any signs of stage fright. It will be up to the senior players to show the coolness of character, focus and discipline that is needed to combat the impassiveness of the Crusaders. Having said that. Go the Hurricanes!

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