It was third time lucky for the Waratahs as Bernard Foley slotted 79th minute penalty to give them a nail-biting 33-32 win over the Crusaders to win the Vodacom Super Rugby final.
Foley’s 45 metre strike – which ironically came from a penalty against All Black captain Richie McCaw - sailed just over the bar to be the difference between the two sides in an epic final where the result was in doubt all the way.
It ended the title drought for the Waratahs, who have lost their only two final appearances to the Crusaders, and gave coach Michael Cheika a rare double of winning both Super Rugby and the Heineken Cup as coach.
Foley scored a massive 23 points with the boot as the Waratahs scored a record 10th home win for the season, showing their consistency and true worth as Super Rugby champions.
But it was a nail-biting affair as the Waratahs swept to a 14 point lead in the opening 15 minutes, led 20-13 at halftime only to watch the Seven time Super Rugby champions haul them in and take the lead twice – the final time with just four minutes to play.
With South African referee Craig Joubert showing just why he is the best in the world with a superb refereeing performance, the final penalty came at a crucial point as the Waratahs were putting on phases and McCaw will have little argument when he sees the replay.
The loss also meant that Todd Blackadder’s run as Crusaders coach is now two losses in finals, after also losing the 2011 final to the Reds in Brisbane.
While it was thought the Tahs pack may struggle up front against the clinical Crusaders, the home side started off exceptionally well to take an early lead thanks to Foley’s accurate boot.
The flyhalf opened the scoring with a penalty, before a beauty of a long pass out from Kurtley Beale to Foley opened up a gap which eventually led to Adam Ashley-Cooper running with speed onto a ball to score the opening try.
Foley added two more penalties as the Waratahs built an innings to lead 14-0 before the Crusaders finally got themselves on the scoreboard through an excellent try to Matt Todd.
Having recovered a loose ball that was kicked downfield by the Tahs, the Crusaders started a counter-attack from deep in their own half, as Ryan Crotty put Kieran Reid into the gap and the IRB Player of the year put the perfect pass out to Todd in space, with the flanker sprinting in for the try.
Foley added two more penalties with Colin Slade adding two before the break as the sides went in 20-13 at halftime.
There was a bit of controversy early on in the second half as the Crusaders drew level through man-mountain Nemani Nadolo, who beat two tackles to go over and score. Replays however showed that his foot may have touched the sideline before he dotted down, but this was ignored by the television match referee who told Joubert to award the try.
The Tahs scrum started to squeak, and two monster scrums later Slade took the lead for the Crusaders as he grabbed the three points on offer after a collapsed scrum.
Foley was quick to reply and it was clear the game was set to go down to the wire as neither team looked set to succumb and give in.
Slade again grabbed the lead after Sekopi Kepu high-tackled Tom Taylor but the Tahs were not going to hold back and launched a massive attack that went through 12 phases before that man Ashley-Cooper again broke a tackle to go over and score his second of the match.
Given this was his first Super Rugby final in his 10 years in the game, the decorated Wallaby certainly deserved his man of the match award for his performance.
The four point lead was cut to one by Slade as the Crusaders pressed hard and as the clock ticked down towards the end, the Waratahs were pinned for off-side, allowing Slade to slot an easy penalty with four minutes to go to make it 32-30 to the New Zealanders.
The Waratahs started a final push and were rewarded with the penalty, with much debate whether Foley could make the distance.
His kick sailed straight and low, and crept over the crossbar by a slim margin, but it was enough to be worthy of the title.
The Tahs ended off the league phase as the No 1 side on the log, and were equally worthy winners of the final. If they can translate this momentum into Wallaby success in the Castle Lager Rugby Championship waits to be seen.
- Tries: Adam Ashley-Cooper (2); Conversions: Bernard Foley; Penalties: Foley (7)
- Tries: Matt Todd, Nemani Nadolo; Conversions: Dan Carter, Colin Slade; Penalties: Slade (6)