Waratahs complete Super Rugby fairytale
Fairytale endings are just that. For story books and bedtime, not the brutal cut and thrust of real life, let alone the rugby pitch.
But the Waratahs have ignored every convention of rugby and real life for six brilliant months and on Saturday night, in front of a 61,800 Super Rugby record crowd, snapped a decade-long losing streak to the most successful province in SANZAR history to claim a maiden title and banish the ghosts of cynicism in Sydney and NSW.
An Adam Ashley-Cooper double and a cold-as-ice penalty goal from five-eighth Bernard Foley with a minute left sealed the win, but only after a bone-crunching, blow-by-blow battle with the seven-time champions.
The Waratahs led 14-0 with 15 minutes gone and 20-13 at half-time but a questionable try awarded to Nemani Nadolo in the 43rd minute sparked a trademark comeback from the assured visitors, who had not lost to NSW in a decade.
A 76th-minute penalty goal from Colin Slade, the Crusaders' wolf in sheep's clothing, looked to have broken NSW hearts, giving the Crusaders a 31-30 lead with four minutes to go.
But the Waratahs proved their mettle on the biggest stage, against the toughest opponents to strike back.
A jubilant Michael Cheika, who began transforming the franchise as soon as he stepped off the plane from Paris little more than two years ago, cried tears of elation as he embraced his assistants and support staff in the coaches' box, before joining his players on the field to a rock-star reception.
The Crusaders took a solid 10 minutes to wake up, a period they will rue in hindsight as the Waratahs got a roll on early. Ashley-Cooper's first came in the fifth minute and Foley missed the conversion but the Test five-eighth slotted two penalties in a row to make it 14-0.
Crusaders breakaway Matt Todd struck in the 18th minute and Dan Carter converted, before Foley and Slade traded penalties for the rest of the half.
Carter left the field with a rolled ankle about the 30-minute mark, and Wycliff Palu survived a period in the concussion bin to return and play out the half.
The second half sputtered to a disastrous start for NSW. Television match official George Ayoub awarded a try to wrecking-ball winger Nadolo in the 43rd minute despite an apparent foot in touch. Slade converted to level the scores at 20-20 and the Waratahs lost Test hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau to injury.
A tense 10 minutes ensued. The Waratahs' scrum was badly penalised, prompting referee Craig Joubert to offer to his assistants "he's getting smashed" of NSW tight-head Sekope Kepu.
Foley missed a shot at goal in the 52nd minute but came good two minutes later to level at 23-23. They gifted Slade his next shot and the solid Crusaders playmaker kicked his side to a 26-23 lead in the 57th minute.
The visitors had NSW in a vice-like grip, squeezing at will to force errors in attack and defence, but the home side kept coming and Ashley-Cooper crossed for his second in the 63rd minute. Foley converted to make it 30-26 to the Tahs.
It was white-knuckle stuff for the rest of the match, as Slade and Foley taunted each other with penalty goals. It was the Australian who had the last laugh.
Sydney Morning Herald