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NSW, ACT rivalry flares in Super Rugby semifinals; Crusaders aim to repel Sharks attack

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - A rapidly rising sense of confidence in Australian rugby is likely to be manifested in the Super Rugby semifinal between the New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Brumbies on Saturday.

Recent years have been lean for the Wallabies: By next year's tournament it will have been 16 years since they won a World Cup. It has been 12 years since they took the Bledisloe Cup from the All Blacks, and they have won the Rugby Championship or Tri-Nations once in 13 years.

Australian teams have won the Super Rugby title only three times since the tournament's inception in 1996, and at times have seemed lacking in depth, their talent diluted among five teams.

But the form of the Waratahs and Brumbies this season has produced a strong belief that Australian rugby is on an upswing, and it has infected the Wallabies as they head toward the Rugby Championship.

The Waratahs and Brumbies will ensure there will be an Australian team in the final, to face the winner of the first semifinal between seven-time champions the Crusaders and South Africa's Sharks in Christchurch.

The Waratahs have never won a Super Rugby title, and that failure has become an almost intolerable irritant to their players, their fans, and to their strong sense of state pride. The Brumbies won the crown in 2001 and 2004, largely propelled by then flyhalf and current head coach Stephen Larkham.

The rivalry between the neighbouring states has grown steadily over the years, and Larkham suggested this week it at least equaled and has possibly outgrown the antipathy between New South Wales and Queensland.

The teams have played 24 times in Super Rugby matches with the Waratahs winning 13. The Waratahs will host the semi at Sydney as the favourites, having finished in first place with 12 wins from 16 games during the regular season, and after beating the Brumbies 39-8 only a month ago.

That defeat put the Brumbies on the verge of missing the playoffs but they revived to beat the Western Force 37-25 in a showdown for a quarterfinal place, then beat defending champions the Chiefs 32-30 to reach the semifinals.

Their bitter foe stands between them and their second straight appearance in the final after last year's 27-22 loss to the Chiefs.

"Being a Canberra player, it's always been about playing the Waratahs, or NSW before they were the Waratahs," Larkham said. "That was always a grudge match as a rugby union player in Canberra and it is no different now."

The teams sport some of the most exciting talent in Australia: The Waratahs have the brilliant Wallabies fullback Israel Folau — top try-scorer in Super Rugby this season with 12 — and the Brumbies have Fiji-born wing Henry Speight, who has just broken into the Australia squad.

Waratahs coach Michael Cheika regards the Brumbies as a formidable obstacle to his team's title ambitions.

"Their key players are back, they've got just as many international players as we have, and they've got an excellent record in the last two or three seasons," he said.

The Crusaders also face formidable opposition from the Sharks, who led the tournament for most of the regular season, and are determined to claim their first title.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw returns from injury, and coach Todd Blackadder said they are ready for the challenge of the Sharks.

"We've been through a lot this season, a lot of challenges," Blackadder said. "We've been through some good learnings, a bit of adversity. If anything, it's probably set us up. We're mentally strong, we've had to work on parts of our game, and there's a lot of belief."

The Sharks are also star-studded, from their front row which includes Springbok brothers Bismarck and Jannie Du Plessis, through a backline that contains international stars Patrick Lambie, Frans Steyn and JP Pietersen.

Coach Jake White, who led the Springboks to the 2007 World Cup title and the Brumbies to last year's final, has also been transformative, producing a team capable of winning the title, though he says the Crusaders start as favourites.

"The Crusaders are a phenomenal team," White said. "We're under no illusions of how good they are and what they've achieved."

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