SYDNEY, July 29 (Reuters) - The New South Wales Waratahs can look back with pride on a groundbreaking season that has taken them to the brink of the Super Rugby championship, but they have no desire to delve too far into the past as far as their record against the Canterbury Crusaders is concerned.
The Waratahs will face the seven-times champions for the first time this year in Saturday’s title-decider, making the blockbuster clash at Sydney’s Olympic stadium something of a leap into the unknown for both sides.
But dig deeper into the past and the story is one of pain for the Waratahs, who last tasted victory over the Crusaders in 2002. They have lost their last 11 matches to the powerful New Zealanders, including the Super Rugby finals in 2005 and 2008.
Michael Cheika’s Waratahs pride themselves on being a team that works hard as much as entertains, and they displayed plenty of grit to finish top of the table at the end of the regular season for the first time.
One of the team’s grittiest members is number eight Wycliff Palu, who said they had also worked hard to learn how to forget.
“We haven’t thought about it at all,” the Wallabies back rower told reporters of the team’s appalling record against the Crusaders.
“We’ve done a lot of mental work this year and that was one of the biggest keys, forgetting all that kind of stuff.”
Palu, by dint of injury and circumstance, will have a blank slate of sorts when he faces All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and IRB player of the year Kieran Read in arguably the world’s most powerful back row in provincial-level rugby.
Palu, who has avoided the pair at both Super Rugby and international level over the past couple of seasons, is relishing the prospect of facing them on Saturday.
“They are probably among the best players in the world and I personally haven’t played them at All Blacks or Super Rugby level for a while now, so I‘m looking forward to it,” said the 51-cap Wallaby.
Palu, who turned 32 on Sunday, has struggled to build momentum in recent seasons due to a litany of injuries but has returned to career-best form this year.
A driving force in the Waratahs’ resurgence, Palu was also instrumental in helping the Wallabies sweep France 3-0 last month.
In playing alongside flanker and fearless Wallabies captain Michael Hooper in the Waratahs’ back row, Palu is unlikely to head into the clash with too much trepidation.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks pair have had their fitness worries this season, with flanker McCaw suffering a broken rib in the series against England last month, and number eight Read coming back gingerly from a series of concussion-related problems.
Palu’s clash with enforcer Read is a taste of what is to come in the four-nation Rugby Championship, when Australia take another tilt at trying to end the All Blacks’ domination of world rugby.
”He’s coming back to real good form now,“ said Palu. ”I think he’s all-round the best. He does all the things a forward should be able to do so he’s right up there.
“He’s one of the keys. When he gets a good roll on, the whole team gets on the back of his go-forward. He’s one of many guys we have to look out for.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford