Why the Waratahs have more than a sniff against Crusaders

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The Waratahs will have a few non-Cantabrian New Zealanders quietly cheering them on against the Crusaders on Saturday afternoon.

The Crusaders’ acquisition of Moana Pasifika midfielder Levi Aumua this week — the Robin Hood principle in reverse — has not increased their popularity outside their own region.

If the New Zealand player market was in the property pages, the Crusaders would be the Baby Boomers: leveraging historical success to build an entrenched — perhaps irreversible — advantage over other teams when a new ‘property’ comes on to the market.

After six titles on the bounce, their response to other teams seems to be, ‘you need to work as hard and as smart as us’ — the rugby version of ‘stop eating smashed avocado’.

A NSW win would therefore gain admirers on both sides of the Tasman, and it’s not beyond the realms of comprehension despite the Waratahs’ woeful record in the Garden City.

The afternoon kick-off and reasonable forecast — with a positively balmy high of 19 degrees — means that the Waratahs will not be exposed to the brutally cold and dewy evening conditions that traditionally has Sydneysiders pining for a flat white and the Bronte-Bondi walk.

Langi Gleeson, Jed Holloway, Ben Donaldson and Charlie Gamble will all have plenty to prove on New Zealand’s South Island.Credit: Getty

But, meteorological reasons aside, this just isn’t as fearsome a Crusaders side as some in the past.

Injuries and rest weeks are the main reason for that. Take the back three, for example. There is no Will Jordan (rested) or Sevu Reece (ACL), and their replacements Fergus Burke and Dallas McLeod are playing out of position. Burke is solid at No.10 and McLeod is a more-than-solid midfielder, but neither have the attacking spark provided by Jordan or Reece.

But it’s really up front where the Crusaders have been hit hard. Their propping stocks have been decimated. All Blacks Joe Moody, George Bower and Fletcher Newell are all gone for the season. Three of the props in the 23-man to face the Waratahs — Kershawl Sykes-Martin, Reuben O’Neill and Seb Calder — aren’t even part of the full Crusaders squad.

In the second row, the Crusaders have opted to rest Scott Barrett — and the lock has arguably been their best forward this year. He has certainly set the standard in terms of work rate.

They still have Richie Mo’unga steering the ship, but the Crusaders of 2023 aren’t quite the dreaded road trip of past years.Credit: Getty

The Crusaders aren’t exactly struggling when they can replace Barrett with Sam Whitelock, but they have been mid-table all season in terms of their lineout accuracy, and it goes without saying that the scrum isn’t as strong without Moody and Newell.

The Crusaders will be good, of course. With Richie Mo’unga pulling the strings at No.10 and Leicester Fainga’anuku in career-best form at No.11, they have two of the best weapons in the competition.

The loose forward trio of Christian Lio-Willie, Tom Christie and Cullen Grace will also be hard-working and extremely niggly at the breakdown.

But you have to give the Waratahs credit for sending a strong team over, minus Michael Hooper (in any case, Charlie Gamble needs the game time). You can’t rest your way into Super Rugby contention — gaming the system will bite you on the backside at some point.

The Waratahs are clearly entering the contest with a competitive mindset, and it is very hard to see them getting towelled up like they were against the Blues at Eden Park in April, when respectability on the scoreboard seemed to be the unspoken goal.

Jed Holloway and Langi Gleeson run hard enough lines to get them some front-foot ball in Christchurch, and they have a bit on the bench too with Mahe Vailanu and Ned Hanigan.

It will also double as a genuine Wallabies audition for Ben Donaldson. The Wallabies will take Quade Cooper, Bernard Foley and Carter Gordon to the Rugby World Cup, unless that pecking order can be broken up between now and then.

But there is no better place to send a message to Eddie Jones — the highest-paid volunteer in all of Australia — than at the Crusaders’ home ground, against the incumbent All Blacks’ No.10.

Even a win might not change the Waratahs’ finishing place on the table, but you’re kidding yourself if you think there is nothing riding on Saturday’s game.

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