Crusaders' favourite sons, own worst enemies
Two of the Crusaders' favourite sons were ironically also their own worst enemies during an epic Super Rugby final last night, as Richie McCaw and Andrew Mehrtens both made significant contributions to the NSW Waratahs' historic triumph.
The All Blacks captain was a focal point of the Waratahs' match-winning penalty in the final minute at ANZ Stadium while Mehrtens - who famously confirmed the Crusaders third title in Canberra in 2000 with a coolly taken three-pointer - played a more peripheral role in New South Wales' dramatic 33-32 victory.
Ultimately it was Wallabies first five-eighth Bernard Foley who took centre stage by directing his seventh successful penalty attempt just clear of the crossbar with less than 30 seconds to play in a contest that completed the Waratahs resurrection as the dominant force in Australian rugby.
Foley was on target from 45-metres - a distance he admitted would have been beyond him had Mehrtens not finessed his kicking routine on a part-time basis since settling in Sydney last year.
"Mehrts has been good this year. I've had a bit to do with Mehrts and we've worked on putting a bit more length in the kick," said Foley, before he rejoined his jubilant teammates.
"I knew it was right on my distance, I think the rugby Gods were smiling."
In contrast McCaw exemplified the Crusaders sombre mood as they contemplated their second loss in a final in four years.
"It's pretty disappointing really .... I'm pretty gutted," the legendary flanker admitted as he reflected on South African referee Craig Joubert's decision to penalise him for joining a ruck incorrectly.
Replays were inconclusive regarding the accuracy of Joubert's judgment, but McCaw was philosophical.
"I probably should have done better really," he said.
"Perhaps I opened the door for the ref to make a decision and whether you agree or disagree that's the way it was.
"I'm pretty annoyed, but it's one of those things you've just got to live with."
Before Foley emerged as the hero to McCaw's villain, Colin Slade looked to have guided the Crusaders to their eight championship with a 75th minute penalty, but kicking away possession rather than treasuring the ball allowed the Waratahs to gain vital field position.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder felt Joubert's decisive ruling was a 50:50 call when ruing another squandered opportunity to win a title for the first time since Robbie Deans' tenure ended in 2008.
"It could have gone either way. It comes down to those moments doesn't it? There's nothing between the sides. It comes down to those moments, winning the competition or not," he said before being magnanimous in defeat.
"They've been the best team all season. They showed that at the end didn't they?"
The Waratahs, top qualifiers and the competition's best attacking and defensive team, looked to be cruising to their ninth consecutive victory after Foley's boot and Adam Ashley's fifth-minute try combined to produce a dream start for the majority of a record crowd of 61,823.
However, the Crusaders made an much-improved beginning to the second half, even though it appeared Nemani Nadolo had a foot in touch when he scored in the 43rd minute.
Slade, who kicked six penalties and a conversion after Dan Carter limped off in the 30th minute with a leg injury, was also pivotal as the Crusaders regrouped after an error-prone and ill-disciplined start gifted the Waratahs an early 14-point lead.
"We did bloody well to get back into it and I think that's the most disappointing part, that we got gave ourselves a chance," McCaw said.
The Waratahs, meanwhile, always believed they were capable of ending a 11-match losing streak against the Crusaders - proof of the self-belief, composure and confidence Cheika has instilled since his regime began last season.
"I really believe in this team a lot. Many times over the last two seasons we've been able to dig ourselves out of a hole," said Cheika, who also coached Leinster to Heineken Cup glory in 2009.
"Our persistence showed out in the end."
Cheika also noted Mehrtens contribution to the Waratahs joining the New South Wales State of Origin squad as a sporting success story in 2014.
"The man kicked a goal from just a touch outside his range under pressure, under the guidance of Andrew.
"Even though he's had a small involvement, around a day a week, every little inch counts. In a way he's been a big contributor in relation to the result," smiled Cheika who added: "I love the irony of the situation."