In a drama-filled display in front of a record Super Rugby crowd, it was a case of third time lucky for the Waratahs.
The 19th Super Rugby final was a fitting end to the tournament as the two sides who led proceedings in the regular season went toe-to-toe, playing a spectacular brand of exciting, end-to-end running rugby for the duration. And having lost out to the Crusaders at this stage twice before, the ‘Tahs righted the wrongs of 2005 & 2008, their only two previous finals, scraping the game at the death 33-32.
In a game decided by the finest of margins, Bernard Foley, the Waratahs and Wallabies 10, eventually clinched it for the Sydney outfit with a kick that snuck over the cross-bar from 45m out. His game tally of 23 saw him extend his season’s points-scoring lead of 229 to 252, overtaking Peter Hewat’s record of points scored in a season.
The Waratahs took an early lead through a move that tested what has been an occasionally shaky line-out as a long ball to the back put Wycliff Palu in space on a wrap-around and gave Foley space to surging through a semi-gap. Caught slightly napping, the Crusaders defence was forced to go off their feet and Foley opened the scoring from the ensuing penalty. Two further penalties and an unconverted try, which came from beautifully executed passing, quick hands and powerful running by Adam Ashley-Cooper to burst through three defenders, took the home side to 14-0 up in as many minutes.
The Crusaders replied shortly after through flanker Matt Todd, his try a wonderful example of opportunism and counter-attacking by the Kiwi outfit. After a storming run by the winger Nemani Nadolo was brought to a halt on the left wing, and the ball hacked forward by the Waratahs defence, the Crusaders regathered and swept back down the right. Slade surged through a hole and found Kieran Read. Read, sublime as always in the wide channels and in the offload, made a particularly deft pass to his back row colleague Todd, who ran in from the 22 and broke through a last ditch tackle attempt by Ashley-Cooper to touch down.
While Richie McCaw is still plying his old trade, the unearthing of Todd has proved a blessing for the Crusaders as he’s more than ably filled the wily boots of McCaw. Todd Blackadder still has a place for McCaw but it’s testament to Todd that this is in the 6 jersey.
Nadolo took a try of his own shortly into the second half as try two was worked up beautifully by the Crusaders. In a scrappy series of encounters possession changed hands a couple of time but when a perfectly executed long pass by scrum-half Andy Ellis eventually found the enormous Fijian, he broke down the line and did enough to get through a brave cover tackle by Kurtley Beale.
Slade and Foley exchanged penalties to keep the scoreboard ticking over and Slade put the Crusaders in front for the first time in the match on 57mins. The lead was short-lived however as Ashley Cooper again dented the Crusaders defence five minutes later. In a move started by scrum-half Nick Phipps sniping through a gap at a ruck, the Waratahs strung ten phases together before Ashley-Cooper ran onto a Kurtley Beale pass and crossed for his second try, breaking through the tackle of Crusaders 2nd row Dom Bird in similarly powerful fashion to his first.
The Crusaders briefly regained the lead with five minutes to go through another Slade penalty and when the Waratahs coughed up possession at a lineout the Kiwi fans thought they had the game wrapped up. In a cruel twist of fate it wasn’t to be as none other than Richie McCaw was pinged for infringing at a ruck, giving away a penalty in the last minute, which Foley calmly slotted.
The finest of margins, then – a one point victory – but a victory nonetheless and the Waratahs have shed the Crusaders monkey from their back.