Waratahs take care of bitter rival Brumbies
The NSW Waratahs' history-making season is one step from completion with the Super Rugby title favourites hosting the final for the first time after eliminating the ACT Brumbies with a convincing 26-8 semifinal victory at Allianz Stadium tonight.
An eighth consecutive win in 2014 underscored the Waratahs prospects of claiming their first title, though the team that thwarted that ambition in the 2005 and 2008 finals stands in their way.
The Waratahs earned an opportunity to avenge those losses in Christchurch after the Crusaders annihilated the Sharks 38-6.
Qualifying for the final at ANZ Stadium on Saturday has particular meaning for assistant coach Daryl Gibson, who won four titles as a player before an unsuccessful four-year stint on Todd Blackadder's staff.
Although the Waratahs, who have been unbeaten at home at all season, were expected to advance to Saturday's decider - it took a superb defensive effort rather than trademark flair to advance.
Although both teams vowed pre-match to play expansive the magnitude of the occasion dictated a more pragmatic approach - although the Brumbies were rewarded after turning down three kickable penalties.
Aware Christian Leali'ifano had only a 51 per cent success rate over the season, Ben Mowen opted for a series of close-range lineouts and the tactic was ultimately vindicated when Wallaby-in-waiting Henry Speight crossed out wide after a concerted build-up.
Speight had barely featured in the opening quarter but stepped up as the momentum swung to the underdogs, the Fijian provided a useful hit-up before Matt Toomua outflanked an undermanned defence to set up the former Waikato representative for just his third try of an injury disrupted season.
His try cancelled out a gift score to Auckland-born wing Alofa Alofa, who ran 60-metres unimpeded after a loose pass from incumbent Wallabies halfback Nic White sat up invitingly in the third minute.
Bernard Foley missed the extras but had no issues with a 20th minute penalty, to give the Waratahs an eight-point buffer before the Brumbies lifted their intensity and accuracy despite some excellent work at the breakdown by Wallabies openside Michael Hooper.
The Waratahs set piece had its issues - particularly the lineout - and were also on the wrong end of the possession and territory stats but a Foley penalty on the halftime siren after a Adam Ashley-Cooper hit gave the home side a narrow halftime lead.
Leali'ifano should have levelled the scores two minutes after the restart but hooked an easy angled attempt and that miss was compounded when another weak link in the Brumbies line-up gave the Waratahs another fortuitous try.
Former Wallabies fullback Jesse Mogg bid to run out of defence proved costly when Kurtley Beale stripped the ball and ran 20-metres to the corner in the 48th minute - a blunder that saw Mogg dragged for Pat McCabe.
The Brumbies suffered another setback when Speight retreated with a hamstring injury near the hour mark and then the policy of taking lineouts rather than relying on Leali'ifano's boot was negated by two turnovers.
Mowen persevered with the quest for a try but dogged Waratahs defence from a scrum feed again thwarted the Brumbies increasingly desperate attempts to bridge the gap.
Instead, it was the dependable boot of Foley who finally eased the anxiety of the bulk of a 38,800 crowd with a third and final penalty seven minutes from time before the Wallabies five-eighth guaranteed the triumph when he took a great offload from Will Skelton, after the giant lock brushed aside four defenders.
Foley deserved the final say as his try-saving tackle on Speight's replacement Joe Tomane set a sweeping counterattack in motion.
Skelton, a 56th minute replacement for Kane Douglas, took an inside ball from Rob Horne to make amend for the concession of a couple of needless penalties when the Brumbies were notionally still a chance.
Hooper was understandably delighted to host the final, when told it was against the Crusaders - a team they haven't played in the regular season.
"If we knock them off, which will be a very tough task we'll have earned the trophy."
"It's new territory for us, and exciting territory."
Meanwhile, Mowen paid credit to the Waratahs defence.
"We had more than enough opportunities in the 22 to come away with a lot of points. They're the best defensive team in the competition for a reason," lamented Mowen, who is now bound for France to continue his career.
NSW Waratahs 26 (Alofa Alofa, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley tries Foley con 3 pens) ACT Brumbies 8 (Henry Speight try Christian Leali'ifano pen) at Allianz Stadium. HT: 11-8. Referee: Jaco Peyper. Crowd: 38,800