NSW Waratahs heading into the unknown
The NSW Waratahs are venturing into the unknown after showcasing familiar traits during a ground-breaking Super Rugby semifinal victory over the ACT Brumbies in Sydney last night.
A tantalising championship showdown with the Crusaders looms at ANZ Stadium on Saturday after the top-seeded Waratahs underscored their statistical superiority with a resilient and ruthless 26-8 win over last season's runners-up.
The Waratahs ended the regular season with the best attacking and defensive records and justified that status with another compelling performance to maintain their unbeaten home record in 2014 - and secure the franchise's first-ever home final.
Although they failed to score four tries for the first time in eight games time since a loss to the Blues in April, a bonus point was not on offer at Allianz Stadium - it was substance rather style that propelled the Waratahs into their first final since they lost the 2008 showpiece in Christchurch.
Belligerent defence was the focal point, particularly for 20 minutes during the second half when the Brumbies turned down a sequence of kickable penalties before Bernard Foley sealed the Waratahs' eighth successive win with a penalty and then superb converted try in the 76th minute.
Fittingly the incumbent Wallabies first five-eighth helped create the long range effort by making a desperate tackle on Brumbies wing Joe Tomane; moments later he was ranging in support of Will Skelton, who made a precise offload under pressure to give Foley a clear passage to the line.
The Waratahs outscored the Brumbies three tries to one but were happier that they did not concede a point once Christian Leali'ifano levelled the scores at 8-8 two minutes before the break.
"There's been a lot said about our attack all year, but we've also got the best defensive record," said Foley, who contributed 16 points.
"When it got tough we can really guts it out, we gritted our teeth there. That's probably more pleasing, that we didn't leak any points.
"There's a lot of character in this side and it did show."
Set piece deficiencies exposed by the Reds in the final round of the regular season were also evident - a lineout missing the decision-making of Dave Dennis will encourage the Crusaders, who advanced to their 11th final with a clinical 38-6 thrashing of the Sharks in the early semifinal.
But the Waratahs did improve their lineout work and scrummaging as the game developed and crucially forced three set piece turnovers during the Brumbies second half siege.
"I was really proud of the guys. Set piece was really difficult at the start, but to go back to the drawing board and then start getting ascendancy there is really pleasing," said captain Michael Hooper.
"You easily can fall back and start getting negative in those situations, but we started to turn that around and turn it into an attacking option, and relieved the pressure.
"I was really happy with the tight five, particularly, in turning that around."
Of course, the Waratahs transformation has been even more dramatic in 2014 as the coaching team of Michael Cheika, Nathan Grey and former Crusaders assistant coach Daryl Gibson combine to ideally guide Australian rugby's under-achievers to a historic title.
"We never give up, you know. Work rate is something we really want to pride ourselves on," Cheika said.
"It's something we've been trying to work on this year. We specifically sought someone (Nathan Grey) to come and dedicate himself to that defence and contact area. It's something we knew we needed to improve if we wanted to be real competitors.
"We want to chase everything down, we want to have that as part of our identity and to do that we have to perform it regularly."
Halfback Nick Phipps personified that work ethic when he halted Tevita Kuridrani in the right hand corner before tracking across in cover to help put off Robbie Coleman on the opposite flank within seconds in the 51st minute.
"We saved some ridiculous situations where there was going to be tries for sure on edges," Cheika said, revealing Phipps was handed the team's man of the match award.
The Waratahs naturally celebrated their progression to a long-awaited final in measured fashion with Cheika and Hooper saying the team would refocus preparing for the Crusaders tomorrow.
"We haven't played the Crusaders this year so if we knock them off, which will be a very tough task, we'd have earned the trophy," said Hooper.
"We take good momentum into the final but the Crusaders have been there a million times, we haven't been there for a long time. It's new territory for us, but exciting territory."
Cheika, who led Irish club Leinster to their first Heineken Cup in 2008-09, would not dwell on a Crusaders side that has not won the title since 2008 - their longest timeframe without a trophy.
"If you start worrying about them, we'll be worrying about a million things," he said.
"I think we'll just focus on what we're doing and see if it's good enough."
Meanwhile, Brumbies captain Ben Mowen lamented an inability to capitalise on possession and territory before predicting the Waratahs would be even more effective against the Crusaders.
"They played under a lot of pressure from finishing first and hosting a semifinal. There's pressure that comes with that and they handled it really well.
"This week was the one that was going to be a real test for them. Having a week off to sit back and look at the other sides play, feeling anxiety about just wanting to get on the field.
"They'll be much better for (last night) and if anything they'll feel nice and relaxed going into the game."
NSW Waratahs 26 (Alofa Alofa, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley tries; Bernard Foley 3 pen con)
ACT Brumbies 8 (Henry Speight try; Christian Leali'ifano pen)