Whoever takes over at the helm of the Crusaders next year has a hard act to follow but departing coach Robbie Deans has ensured the future of the red and blacks with many of the up and coming players starring in the side's seventh title, achieved in gutsy fashion with a 20-12 win over the Waratahs in Christchurch on Saturday night.
So much focus has fallen on the coach, the departing players, the established test stars and the All Blacks-in-waiting this week that the more immediate legacy of Deans has almost been overlooked.
But the 2008 vintage has signaled the arrival of some impressive new talent that should ensure the Crusaders remain a highly competitive outfit next season.
Wing Kade Poki, hooker Ti'i Paulo, second five Tim Bateman, prop Wyatt Crockett and, of course, the highly regarded young blindside Kieran Read were all prominent in the grinding win over the Waratahs.
Add in the campaign contributions of Stephen Brett, Nasi Manu, Ben Franks, Sean Maitland and Kahn Fotuali'i and the future is clearly bright.
But my how the Crusaders had to work hard for this win. They trailed 11-12 at halftime, failing to maximise their massive advantages in territory and possession while the plucky Waratahs defended bravely and lively wing Lachlan Turner scored two tries against the run of play.
The victory always seemed a matter of time with the Crusaders' tight five fronting manfully to provide a superior scrum and a safe lineout.
Richie McCaw led the rampaging loose forwards and by being able to play field position, the points slowly but surely came during the second spell although this was a win that was only secured in the dying stages of an absorbing contest.
The Waratahs' defence had a desperate edge to it that drew the ire of South African referee Mark Lawrence who labeled them cheats at one stage.
But Lawrence's most decisive call was to yellow-card Brad Thorn for punching, a penalty that cancelled out what looked to be wonderful and decisive try to Crockett when the Crusaders were ahead 14-12 midway through the second spell.
Somehow the Crusaders hung tough with halfback Andy Ellis in the thick of the action, marshalling his pack and linking with his backs in a classy display that will ensure he remains in the tests frame.
Thorn, his discretion aside, had a powerful match and McCaw was inspirational. Read was tireless at his side and Crockett had a towering game that might have pushed his name forward for Sunday's All Blacks announcement.
Importantly, Carter's game continues to get back into shape after his injury-interrupted campaign.
It was Carter, on the back of some sterling forward work in the final quarter, who sealed the deal.
A dropped goal and penalty from his trusty left boot saw out this famous win and the perfect send-off to Deans who has masterminded five of the seven Super titles as coach, a remarkable record that he will now look to springboard him to international success with the Wallabies.
Carter had given the Crusaders an early lead with a penalty in the opening stanza of a match played out in front of a fittingly sold-out AMI Stadium with 25,500 in attendance.
But the Waratahs struck with their first attack. Kurtley Beale put in a pin-point wipers kick that saw right wing Lachlan Turner steal it in the jump from Carter and crash over for the try.
Turner scored next as well as the Waratahs somehow turned some scrambling defence on their own line into a counter-attacking try at the other end which was finished by a classy kick and chase by Turner. Beale's conversion had the visitors out to a handy 12-3 lead.
Carter edged the home side back and crucially they struck just before halftime, finally getting some reward for all their pressure with Mose Tuiali'i finishing off a flowing attack in the corner.
The Crusaders scored first after the break to continue their momentum with Carter landing another penalty after Bateman was cut down on the line by a high tackle from Tahs lock Dean Mumm.
The visitors then enjoyed their best period of play but couldn't crack the Crusaders' defence, even when they were down to 14 men.
Carter eventually got the sleepy scoreboard ticking over with a crucial dropped goal to give the Cruasders some breathing space at 17-12 with nine minutes left. A penalty soon after appeared to make it safe.
Scott Hamilton blew a try two minutes from the end when he knocked on but it didn't matter. The fairytale was complete.
Deans rates this side as good as any Crusaders squad he has been involved in. They achieved their latest success with a mixture of style and grit and this is a title that will be cherished for all sorts of reasons.
Now we wait to see what building blocks are put in place for the defence of the Super 14 crown next season. Clearly the foundations are already there.
Crusaders 20: Tries: Mose Tuiali'i. Pens: Dan Carter (4). Drops: Carter.
Waratahs 12: Tries: Lachie Turner (2). Cons: Kurtley Beale.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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