AUCKLAND, NZ – Epic. That one word sums up the finale of possibly the best season of Super Rugby ever, both teams rewarding the record crowd and everyone watching around the world with an absorbing and heart-stopping match. For the Waratahs it was a triumphant end to their winless history while the Crusaders have to be content with finishing short. Some big time players played contrasting roles in the match, Adam Ashley-Cooper crossing for two crucial tries for the home team while Dan Carter had to limp off injured in the first half. It was a game that hung in the balance until the very end, when the non-NZ rugby public got something they’ve no doubt been waiting years for – Richie McCaw getting penalised and costing his team the game.
Waratahs 33 (Adam Ashley-Cooper 2 tries, Bernard Foley 7 pen, con) Crusaders 32 (Matt Todd, Nemani Nadolo tries, Colin Slade con, 6 pen, Dan Carter con)
The Waratahs came flying out of the blocks, immediately dominating possession and were rewarded with an early penalty to Bernard Foley. Rather than sit back on their lead the Tahs kept the attacking mindset and crossed for the opening try soon after. Adam Ashley-Cooper, who earlier in the week recited a poem to his team mates, busted over on the right hand side after some great lead up work down by the likes of Rob Horne and Wycliff Palu. Foley missed the conversion but struck again twice in quick succession to make the Tahs lead 14-0 after a quarter of an hour. The Crusaders needed a spark of brilliance to get them back in the game and it came completely against the run of play after the Waratahs hacked a turnover downfield. Colin Slade took advantage of a slack Tahs chase and broke the line, feeding Kieran Read who then found Matt Todd. Todd had a 40 metre gallop to the try line and suddenly the score was 14-7. Dan Carter converted but then had a recurrence of the knee injury that forced him out last year and left the field. Colin Slade took over the kicking and added two more first half penalties which were matched by Foley, making the halftime score 20-13 to the Tahs.
Soon after the resumption came a moment of controversy. A break by Andy Ellis led to him passing to big winger Nemani Nadolo, who beat the initial defence before appearing to squeeze his giant frame inside the corner flag for a try. Replays seemed to suggest he put his foot on the line, but the TMO disagreed and awarded the try. Slade slammed home the conversion and the scores were level at 20 each. He then edged the visitors ahead with two more shots while Foley knocked over another before Ashley-Cooper struck again with a remarkably similar try to his first. Foley made no mistake with the conversion this time and the Tahs held a slender four-point lead. That didn’t last long as Slade narrowed the gap to one with another penalty.
The drama was saved for the final act. First the Crusaders launched a raid deep into Waratah territory that looked to have broken down as they attempted to spread it wide to score the winning try. However, the Tahs defence had come off the line too quickly and they were pinged for offside. Slade slotted the easy goal and it was looking like the title was heading to Chriscthurch for the first time since 2008. It seemed for all money that the Crusaders would
grind down the remaining three minutes but Willi Heinz inexplicably gifted the ball back to the Tahs off a box-kick. From there the Tahs moved the ball to midfield, where Richie McCaw gave away a penalty at a ruck 45 metres out. Foley, who had been getting kicking coaching all season from former Crusaders great Andrew Mehrtens, snuck it over for the one point lead and the title.
A superb game, but in the end a fair result to a Waratahs side who started off at a million miles an hour and held their composure at the end when it really mattered. The Crusaders definitely played their part, but fell agonisingly short due to a combination of bad luck and bad decision making. Neither side was perfect at set-piece, with both line outs exhibiting some shakiness, including an absolute shocker from the Tahs that led to the Crusaders last penalty. Both teams looked to feed their back three with both sets of wingers getting plenty of touches.
A big question mark has to go over the substitution of Andy Ellis for Willi Heinz late in the game by the Crusaders. Ellis had been among the visitors best up until that point and the
only thing Heinz’s contribution will be remembered for is handing the ball back to the Tahs with three minutes to go. Coach Todd Blackadder has described Richie McCaw’s penalty at the end as ’50/50′, but in reality he should have known better than to put himself in that position with the final on the line.
The Waratahs will be overjoyed at the fact that they’ve buried their finals hoodoo and especially that they did it in front of a Super Rugby final record crowd of 62,000 at Olympic Park. Also it’s some sweet justification for controversial coach Michael Cheika, who becomes the first boss to win Heineken Cup and Super Rugby titles. The ramifications of this one could be far reaching with regards to the international scene, expect the Wallabies to be fielding plenty of Waratahs in two weeks when they meet the All Blacks at the same venue.
Man of the match: I have to agree with the official honour, Adam Ashley-Cooper was immense. His leadership, defence and enthusiasm on attack was amazing and was well rewarded with two tries. Unbelievably, it was the first time in his entire career he’d played in a final of any sort.
So there it is, your Super Rugby champions for 2014 are the NSW Waratahs. Congratulations to them, but for the Wallaby players they’ll be back at work next week to prepare for The Rugby Championship. The first test against the All Blacks is coming up in two weeks and has been highly anticipated all season. Tune in here for previews and reviews, but first I’ll have a Super Rugby season recap coming up later on in the week with team reviews and awards.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.