Waratahs snatch epic final
New South Wales Waratahs clinched their maiden Super Rugby title with a 33-32 victory over seven-time champions Christchurch Crusaders in a tense Sydney finale.
On their previous two final appearances - 2005 and 2008 - the Waratahs were beaten by the Crusaders, but it was the Sydneysiders celebrating on Saturday as they exacted revenge on the Christchurch-based franchise before a partisan ANZ Stadium crowd.
It was the epic showpiece event a thrilling 2014 season deserved, ebbing and flowing in favour of both sides before the Waratahs etched their name into Super Rugby folklore.
A last-gasp penalty from 35 metres out from Bernard Foley was enough to snatch victory from the claws of defeat as the Crusaders were denied a record-breaking eighth title.
Moments earlier it looked like Foley's opposite number Colin Slade, who assumed kicking duties from an injured Dan Carter in the first half, had clinched victory for the Crusaders when he landed a 77th-minute three-pointer of his own.
But Adam Ashley-Cooper's brace of tries combined with 18 points from the precise boot of Foley was enough to nullify Slade's contribution of 20 points and tries from Crusaders flanker Matt Todd and prolific winger Nemani Nadaolo.
It has been a season marked by flying starts for Michael Cheika's Waratahs and they made sure the capacity crowd had little time to draw breath once again.
Foley made the Crusaders pay for their early indiscipline by converting his first three-pointer and the Waratahs opening try followed just two minutes later.
After a beautifully orchestrated free-flowing move, uncompromising Wallaby centre Ashley-Cooper clattered through one tackle before carrying two defenders over the whitewash to give the Waratahs an eight-point lead with just five minutes played.
Todd Blackadder's Crusaders were made to overcome a slovenly start to the season - languishing in 13th after seven rounds of action - to make the finals and it was a similar narrative in the final.
Another two penalties allowed the Waratahs to amass a 14-point lead before the Crusaders started to rattle through the gears.
Much had been made of the potent Crusaders back row and it was IRB World Player of the Year Kieran Read who was the catalyst for their opening try, with flanker Todd sliding over and Carter converting as the Waratahs' advantage was chopped in half.
Then came a concerning sight for All Blacks fans as Carter, on the comeback trail from a seven-month sabbatical, limped off the field to play no further part.
Fly-half Slade assumed kicking duties and was immediately thrust into a duel with opposite number Foley before the Waratahs took a 20-13 lead into the break.
It may have been a subdued start to the first half but the same criticism could not be levelled at the Crusaders in the second.
Powerhouse winger Nadolo charged down the left flank before displaying excellent skill to touch down his 12th try of the season - matching Israel Folau at the top of the scoring charts - under pressure.
Slade made light work of the conversion from touchline to restore parity before firing the visitors into the lead for the first time with a penalty five minutes later.
Once again the fly-halves were locked in a kicking battle as discipline wavered on both sides and it was Slade with the upper hand as the Crusaders amassed a slender 26-23 lead with 25 minutes to play.
The Waratahs snatched back the initiative when Ashley-Cooper once again proved too strong for the Crusaders defence, latching onto a Kurtley Beale offload before roaring through a half-hearted tackle from Dominic Bird.
Foley duly added the extras but a Slade penalty four minutes later reduced the Crusaders' arrears to a solitary point, setting up a grandstand finale in Sydney.
Slade thought he had won it for the Crusaders when he successfully converted his sixth three-pointer, but it was his adversary Foley who was to have the final say.
One final penalty strike from the Wallaby fly-half proved decisive as the Waratahs avenged their final heartaches to finally get their hands on southern hemisphere rugby's most coveted prize.