An enemy turned ally holds the key to the NSW Waratahs’ hopes of securing their maiden Super Rugby championship with a hoodoo-busting victory over the colossal Crusaders.
The Waratahs will tap into the vast knowledge of assistant coach Daryl Gibson, a vital cog in five of the Crusaders’ record seven Super Rugby titles, in a bid to conquer the champion New Zealanders for the first time in a decade.
The Tahs have lost their past 11 encounters with the Crusaders, including the 2005 and 2008 title deciders, but have identified Gibson’s expert insight into the competition’s perennial superpowers as priceless.
The former All Blacks centre featured as a player in the Crusaders’ first four championship wins in 1998, 1999, 2000 and the untouchable, unbeaten 2002 side before being Robbie Deans’ assistant coach when they denied the Waratahs in 2008.
“He’s our mole,” said Waratahs halfback Nick Phipps after his man-of-the-match display in Saturday night’s 26-8 semi-final defeat of the Brumbies.
“He knows the New Zealand teams inside and out so we’ll have a lot of detail to do.
“He’s been there, done that. He’s played all those games, so he’ll be having a lot to say during the week.
“It’s good for us. We’re able to have that inside knowledge and know that style of play that they’re going to play and how to counter that.”
All up, the mighty Crusaders have contested 10 finals, while this will be only NSW’s third.
And, yet again, the rugby gods have thrust Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Kieran Reid and company in their path.
“They’ve got finals experience across the board, All Blacks everywhere,” Phipps said ahead of the teams’ first meeting for 2014.
Cheika, though, wouldn’t have it any other way and has wanted the Waratahs to “earn their stripes” with victory over the best since before a ball was kicked this season.
“Then we can honestly sit back and say that we went the hardest route possible and that we’ve done the very best we can,” Phipps said.
“But we’ve made it very clear that a semi-final win is awesome, but no one really remembers second place.
“So we’ve got a lot of work to do and we’re keeping our heads down … it’s going to be an epic week.”
The last time the Waratahs and Crusaders clashed for the title, the Kiwis were minor premiers with the best attack and defence in the competition and hosted the final after NSW finished the regular season in second place.
This time, it is a complete role reversal with the Crusaders playing second fiddle – and away from their Christchurch fortress at ANZ Stadium – after the Waratahs romped to the minor premiership with the best attacking and defensive records in the tournament.
“It’s new and exciting territory,” said Waratahs captain Michael Hooper.
“The Crusaders have been there a million times and we haven’t been there for a while.
“Obviously it’s a new one going into finals for a lot of us, but we’ve got a former Crusader to help out with that and our guys who have played in finals to help out.
“You’re drawing on their knowledge to see how it was, how it’s been and what you need to do to get the title.”