Bernard Foley kicked a last-gasp penalty to hand the Waratahs a 33-32 win against the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
What a final. After five months of hit and miss exhibitions, Super Rugby has finally produced a show of style and substance.
Saturday's final had it all. The Waratahs were the superior side in just about every facet, and yet, the Crusaders' refusal to lay down made for a compelling 80-minute narrative.
If any other side had met the Waratahs in this final, they would have lost by 20 points. They led the Crusaders by 14-0 at one stage, but were ultimately made to scrap for a one-point victory.
There wasn't a player in blue who didn't deliver on the night. Jacques Potgieter was an absolute animal at the tackle point, while Michael Hooper thrived from the platform supplied by his tight forwards. Tatafu Polota-Nau took the fight to the Crusaders at scrum time, and against all expectations it was the Waratahs who dominated this facet in the first half.
Foley kicked brilliantly on the night to bank 23 points, a record for a final. He was well supported by the likes of Kurtley Beale in general play, who caused the Crusaders defence plenty of problems.
Out wide, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Rob Horne were outstanding with ball in hand, the former bagging a brace in some style. As a collective, the Waratahs defence suffocated the Crusaders, forcing a number of turnovers in the early stages.
The opening quarter was all about the Waratahs, and they received another boost when All Blacks legend, Dan Carter, was unable to continue. The Crusaders No 12 sustained an ankle injury, and eventually had to leave the field.
But the Crusaders didn't lose heart. Colin Slade assumed the kicking duties, and was flawless in front of goal. The Crusaders forwards rallied, and by the end of the first half, the visitors trailed 20-13.
The momentum swung in the Crusaders' favour at the beginning of the second half. Polota-Nau left the field with an injury, and the Waratahs scrum started to backpedal. The hosts also lost an edge when Potgieter was subbed in the 49th minute, and the Crusaders' twin-fetching threat of Matt Todd and Riche McCaw began to fire at the breakdown.
Nemani Nadolo showed his power and finishing prowess when he scored an important try, a score that equalled Israel Folau's total of 12 for the season. This was on the back of some terrific offloading and one inspired pass by Andy Ellis.
But in general, the Crusaders looked to slow the Waratahs down at every opportunity. It was when the game degenerated into a dogfight that the Crusaders came into their own.
They looked to be on course for an eighth title during those final few mintues. The Waratahs began to feel the pressure, spilling the ball in contact and kicking directly into touch. They lost an important lineout in the 78th minute when reserve hooker, Tolu Latu, failed to find his jumper.
And yet, it was the Crusaders who would make the title-costing error. McCaw was penalised at the breakdown in the final minute of the game. This handed Foley a shot on goal from 45m out, and from an easy angle. The Waratahs flyhalf made no mistake.
The win marks the Waratahs' first title in the competition's 19-year history. It's also the first for an Australian franchise since the Reds won the tournament in 2011.
While the Crusaders remain the most successful Super Rugby side of all time, they have not added to their trophy cabinet since 2008.
Waratahs – Tries: Adam Ashley-Cooper (2). Conversion: Bernard Foley. Penalties: Foley (7).
Crusaders – Tries: Matt Todd, Nemani Nadolo. Conversions: Dan Carter, Colin Slade. Penalties: Slade (6).
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Stephen Hoiles, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Mitchell Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Peter Betham.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn , 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
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Michael Hooper was abrasive and accurate at the breakdown, and a handful for the Crusaders defence when he carried the ball.
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