The stage is set for a classic Super Rugby final after a week-long build-up spiced with psychological shots from both sides of the Tasman ended in more drama and controversy.
Fed-up Crusaders captain Kieran Read walked out on a scheduled photo shoot with NSW counterpart Michael Hooper and the coveted trophy on Friday after the Waratahs skipper arrived an hour late.
Tensions were running high in both camps with the Waratahs privately none too happy about the Crusaders demanding the shoot take place at ANZ Stadium rather than the more scenic – and central – backdrop of Sydney Harbour.
Hooper’s tardiness was due to the Waratahs’ captain’s run – held as usual at Allianz Stadium, some 45 minutes from the match venue – running overtime.
In a bizarre and embarrassing conclusion to preparations for the SANZAR showpiece on Saturday night, a sheepish Hooper was left to pose solo with the trophy, which he refused to touch.
“It would be nice if I can touch it tomorrow night. It would be cool,” he admitted.
If he does, Hooper will be the first Waratahs captain in 18 years of Super Rugby to hoist the prized silverware.
But to do so, the Waratahs must overcome Super Rugby’s ultimate super powers in a final for the ages.
The title match pits the runaway minor premiers hosting their historic first final against the seven-time champions from New Zealand contesting a remarkable 11th competition decider.
The Waratahs’ only two previous final appearances both ended in despair at the hands of the Crusaders, who have won the two sides’ past 11 encounters stretching back to 2004.
Despite boasting the competition’s best attacking and defensive records in 2014, NSW have had their pack derided by former All Blacks forward Craig Dowd as the soft underbelly of the Waratahs.
“All we can do is go out there and try to prove that wrong at the end of the day,” Waratahs coach Michael Cheika said on Friday.
“It’s all about what you do and then being judged on what you do.”
After winning their past seven games by an average of 25 points, Hooper said he’d be disappointed if anyone under-estimated the Waratahs.
“We finished on top this year, so we did well in the minor premiership,” he said.
“(We’re) new to finals footy, a lot of us, so I guess people can be apprehensive about us in this situation. But we’re hungry.
“We want to be there and we figure in this position for a reason and you’ve got to be able to try and grab the opportunity with both hands.
“Obviously against a good Crusaders outfit, things aren’t going to happen easily.
“They’re not going to give you ways to score tries, ways to put points on the board.
“You’ve got to be able to make opportunities.”
Coach Cheika was unconcerned about star playmaker Kurtley Beale failing to complete the Waratahs’ final training session before the final because of a shoulder complaint, saying the treatment was precautionary.
With more than 50,000 tickets already sold, the match is guaranteed to be the biggest crowd for a Waratahs home game in more than 100 years – and possibly even break Super Rugby’s all-time attendance record of 55,000 set at the 2009 championship decider between the Bulls and Chiefs at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium.