Knowler: For Crusaders coming second hurts
OPINION: Prior to Saturday night's grand final the Crusaders were unanimous about one thing: one defining moment could decide the winner.
In the 79th minute those words came flooding back as referee Craig Joubert accused Richie McCaw of operating illegally at a breakdown and Bernard Foley, one of the smallest men on the field, forced the Crusaders to sag to their knees by kicking a 45m penalty.
Watching replays of that decision will give crestfallen Crusaders fans heartburn for days.
When Waratahs' replacement hooker Tolu Latu peeled off a ruck he almost voluntarily surrendered at the feet of Crusaders flanker McCaw, who sensing an opportunity to rob the vulnerable ball carrier, went hunting for the precious truffle.
When the pill wasn't released McCaw kept ripping away before being tipped over by replacement prop Jeremy Tilse.
Then Joubert dropped the bomb. McCaw, he said, had broken the law by entering the ruck from the wrong angle and had to pay his penance. It was only a matter of degrees, surely.
McCaw looked to have done everything right; he was supporting his own weight and had remained on his feet as Latu refused to let the ball go. It was the angle of Latu's body that created an optical illusion.
Ultimately, however, McCaw gambled and lost.
What a way to lose an enthralling match in front of 62,000 fans - most of them cocky New South Wales supporters who are now eagerly scrambling for tickets ahead of the Wallabies-All Blacks test at the same venue on August 16.
Prior to kick-off the Crusaders preached the importance of starting strongly, wanting to silence the crowd by throwing their team against the ropes and giving them a good kicking on the scoreboard.
Instead they were the ones to be given an early standing eight-count.
That lethargic start was to haunt them. Adam Ashley-Cooper thundered on to a pass on a terrific angle, resulting in him blowing through Ryan Crotty's tackle, and Foley's goal kicking guaranteed the Tahs a 14-0 lead in as many minutes.
So much for that quick start.
That the Crusaders, whose scrum was surprisingly under pressure in the first half, crawled back into the contest was testament to their self-belief. Matt Todd's try finally gave them something to build on.
They also rode their luck. TMO George Ayoub could have just as easily denied Nemani Nadolo his try after halftime, ruling his foot had brushed the touchline.
They did well to remain so composed after losing Dan Carter with injury but when he was removed from the contest it robbed the Crusaders of one of their most deadly arrows against tiring defenders in the second half.
Crusaders supporters must dip their hats to the Waratahs.
The Sydneysiders, who lost two of their best ball carriers when hooker Tatafu Polota Nau and Wycliff Palu (temporarily) retired hurt, were extremely combative in post-tackle collisions. Captain Michael Hooper's work-rate was phenomenal.
When Colin Slade kicked an easy penalty to put the Crusaders ahead in the 75th minute their supporters dared themselves to believe the title was theirs. Four minutes later they knew better.
Some of those fans greeted the shattered players, several of them suckling beer straight from the bottle, with cheers and applause upon their return to the team hotel but the team's mood was grim.
Coming second hurts. Those players who didn't bother drowning their sorrows went to bed in the knowledge they would have to rise six hours later for the bus trip to Sydney airport.
If they were unlucky they might have passed some Waratahs' fans still celebrating their team's success on the inner-city streets. Losing to the Aussies is never a pleasant experience. They're already fancying their chances for the Bledisloe Cup.
- The Press
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