The New South Wales Waratahs buried 19 years of disappointment and near misses to claim their maiden Super Rugby title at ANZ Stadium last night, but they needed every ounce of their poise and resilience – and one of the great clutch goalkicks – to overcome the champion Canterbury Crusaders outfit, prevailing 33-32 in an epic final.
The home side raced out of the blocks, with a pumped-up Adam Ashley-Cooper punching his way through for the first try inside five minutes and Bernard Foley adding three penalties for a 14-0 lead in even time.
But a stunning long-range team try, finished off by lock Matt Todd, put the Crusaders on the board in the 18th minute, before a penalty kicking duel between Foley and Colin Slade left the scoreboard at 20-13 in favour of the ’Tahs at halftime.
The Crusaders were hit by Daniel Carter’s exit midway through the first half due to an ankle injury, but the battle-hardened visitors dominated the early exchanges after the break. They levelled the scores through a barnstorming try to giant wing sensation Nemani Nadolo, although there was significant doubt over the put-down and the TMO’s contentious decision in the affirmative riled NSW coach Michael Cheika.
More accurate goalkicking advanced the score to 26-23 to Canterbury, before the veteran Ashley-Cooper stepped and fended through for another powerful five-pointer in the 63rd minute.
Back-to-back penalty goals to Slade edged the Crusaders back in front with only four minutes remaining, appearing certain to break Waratahs hearts like Kiwi sides have so often before.
But ultimately it was the Waratahs’ composure – and the questionable decision-making of the Crusaders – that was telling. After the Crusaders kicked away possession, red-and-blacks legend Richie McCaw gave away a ruck penalty to offer Foley a chance to be the hero.
Canterbury icon Andrew Mehrtens, who was commentating on the game, is Foley’s kicking coach, and declared the 45-metre assignment was right on the edge of his range. But the pugnacious flyhalf put the exclamation point on a sensational campaign and a brilliant performance in the final by slotting the pressure goal by the barest of margins.
The Waratahs cool-headedly closed out the remaining seconds after the restart, setting off wild and emotional celebrations on the field, and in the stands amongst a Super Rugby final record 61,283-strong crowd. Injured captain Dave Dennis was visibly overcome as he embraced his teammates in undoubtedly the most poignant post-match scenes.
In a wonderful team effort, Foley, captain Michael Hooper, fullback Israel Folau, centres Kurtley Beale and Ashley-Cooper, and No.8 Wycliff Palu were unsurprisingly the standouts.
The Crusaders, for their part, were magnificent – particularly after giving up a big early lead. As expected, they ran the Waratahs down to the wire, and few could have begrudged the perennial powerhouse the spoils had they been able to hold on. But every Australian Rugby supporter would have taken particular satisfaction from the fact it was McCaw – accused of bending the ruck rules and getting away with murder throughout his career – that gave away the decisive penalty.
The history-making triumph also provides the Wallabies – who will be dominated by players from the Waratahs and semi-finalists the ACT Brumbies – with a massive confidence boost ahead of an intriguing Rugby Championship campaign.
Relive the dramatic final couple of minutes of the decider and the stirring post-match celebrations in the video below:
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