Sam Whitelock and the all-conquering Crusaders are using the pain of their last visit to NSW to ward off complacency in what looms as the ultimate Super Rugby mismatch in against the Waratahs in Wollongong on Saturday.
That 2019 clash at the Sydney Cricket Ground was a highly charged affair, eight days after the devastating Christchurch mosque shootings which claimed 51 lives.
Players from both sides huddled shoulder to shoulder in solidarity for a minute’s silence before the match, won 20-12 by the Waratahs in a major upset against the now 12 time Super Rugby champions (two Aotearoa titles included).
Club legend Whitelock is also a survivor from the 33-32 loss to the Waratahs in the 2014 final at Stadium Australia.
“We don’t have to look too far back, last time we were in Sydney we didn’t get the job done so we’re aware of the history between these two sides,” Whitelock told Stan Sport’s Rugby Heaven.
Bookmakers have the Crusaders at $1.01 and the Waratahs at $26 – and for good reason.
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The Waratahs are 0-10 this year while the Crusaders are 2-0 in the trans-Tasman comp after winning another Aotearoa championship and Scott Robertson breakdance.
And the Crusaders are fresh from delivering one of the great Super Rugby statements in Brisbane – a 63-28 clinic against the Australian champion Reds.
“We were really happy with the way we performed,” Whitelock said, before delivering a warning to the Waratahs.
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“There’s always something we can do better and we’ve got a really good group of senior players out there that are driving it. Richie Mo’unga’s one, Mitchell Drummond’s another guy that’s really taken the lead.
“Some of those guys are ‘back seat’ for us now so it’s really cool that they’re driving the standards and it’s making my job easy. I just get to go out there and play and don’t have to worry about too much. But at the same time we’ve got some young guys coming through, Cully Grace for example, some of those guys are playing great rugby.
“It’s just cool to be out there and I’m one of the biggest fans as well, so it’s pretty cool watching them scoring awesome tries.”
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All Blacks centurion Whitelock, 32, said the Crusaders weren’t resting on their laurels in the sun and sand at Coogee this week.
Sloppy finishes in their last two games against the Reds and Brumbies had them still searching for a complete performance.
There is no prospect of taking the foot off the throat: the Crusaders are third on the trans-Tasman ladder and bonus points and a bloated plus points differential in a five week shootout will be crucial in qualifying for the final on June 19.
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“That’s a key thing for us, keep up the good work that we’re doing in the first 60 (minutes) but we’ve got to finish really strong in the last 20,” Whitelock said.
“It’s going to be a cool challenge, none of us have been down there (WIN Stadium) to play. I’ve seen a couple of photos of where the ground is and it’s a pretty awesome spot but we’ve got to make sure we go back to zero…
“We’re always looking to improve and this is a prime time to do it, regardless of who we’re playing.”
No longer the captain of the Crusaders, Whitelock lavished praise on five-eighth Richie Mo’unga, who dazzled at Suncorp Stadium in a 31 point masterclass.
“It always helps when Richie scores three tries,” Whitelock deadpanned.
“It’s pretty hard to get a hold of him, even at training. Us tight forwards like to get in there and rough him up a bit but even a five metre square box, you can’t even get a hand on him. Someone like that is playing really well, he’s playing with confidence and that allows us as the rest of the team to go out there and play well too.
“He’s in probably the form of his life and the boys are just happy they can help out somewhere. When he gets the ball you get excited because you know something’s going to happen. He’s strong, he’s fast and he’s got all the skills too.”
Meanwhile, Whitelock was grateful for Richie McCaw’s endorsement to captain the All Blacks in July in the absence of injured skipper Sam Cane.
But he didn’t want to make a song and dance of stating his case – which is understandable because it speaks for itself.
“It’s cool – I’ve played a lot of rugby with Rich, known each other for a long time, probably over 150 games together so it’s pretty cool to hear that,” Whitelock said.
“But the reality is I’m just trying to concentrate on what I’m doing here at the Crusaders and that’s playing a supporting role with Scott (Barrett) being captain and some of the younger guys that are coming through into those leadership roles.
“It is nice to actually look at things a little bit different. If in doubt, shut up and let them work it out themselves. It is nice to have a bit of variety rather than always being that senior player and taking the lead on a lot of things.”