SYDNEY, Australia -- An under-strength, emotionally wounded Crusaders side were well below their best in Sydney on Saturday night as their 19-game winning streak came to an end at the hands of a determined NSW Waratahs.
But the nine-time Super Rugby champions can be forgiven for having far more important issues on their mind following the horrific terror attacks in Christchurch from eight days ago. Add to that they were down a host of All Blacks and with a rookie fly-half steering the ship, the Crusaders just didn't look like the Crusaders.
Gone was the usual crispness of pass, ruthless breakdown work and moments of sublime individual brilliance, replaced instead by poor decision-making, balls that were passed into touch rather than to a teammate and a whopping 31 missed tackles. The Crusaders' performance began with a flimsy attempted from Whetu Douglas and Matt Todd, and finished with only a slight moment of reprieve when replacement Will Jordan ran 50 metres to grab a consolation five-pointer and improve the scoreline to 20-12.
The slippery conditions certainly played their part, but this was a Crusaders performance rarely seen in the Scott Robertson era. Just how the coach got his players up for the game at the SCG, which only endured one moment of turf trouble, is a wonder in itself.
"Firstly, we were really desperate to play well and represent our people and show how much we care," Robertson said of his side's difficult build-up. "And you can see how hard we worked, but I thought we dropped enough ball for our whole season, so I hope that's out of our system now. But it's a tough week. We're Crusaders, we don't make excuses, we just needed to be better in a lot of parts of the game tonight."
But this was also the Waratahs' best performance of the season. Built on a first-half defensive brick wall -- the hosts had just five missed tackles to halftime -- the Waratahs played from the front and never really looked like losing. They were asked to make 43 more tackles than the Crusaders but finished with an 85 percent success rate, seven percent better than the visitors.
Led by their skipper Michael Hooper, who topped the count with 20, alongside supporting acts from Ned Hanigan (16) and Rob Simmons (14), the Waratahs fronted up and hit hard all night. The fact that the Crusaders' tries came via a questionable forward pass, and then in an 80th-minute breakout, reflected the home side's outstanding defensive shift. The Waratahs were also able to disrupt the Crusaders' lineout and enjoyed a solid night at scrum time, too.
Waratahs deserved winners at SCG. Defended superbly while Crusaders were well off their best. But it's hard to think how they could have ever been near that best, given last Friday's events. #WARvCRU— Sam Bruce (@Sambruce86) March 23, 2019
"I've been trumpeting that [defence] for the last four weeks and obviously this was the biggest test we had, and I thought we came through it well," Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said. "It's an area of our game we've been talking about improving; we came up against the best team in the comp and we did a good job tonight."
While there was fleeting few moments of free-flowing attack, Waratahs superstar Israel Folau managed to get a small crowd on its feet with a towering leap that secured a Bernard Foley high ball, Folau then able to offload to Cameron Clark who sprinted 20 metres for the Tahs' second try.
Jed Holloway had earlier been the beneficiary of Todd and Douglas' poor missed tackle, the Waratahs lock rumbling over under the sticks from close range after just four minutes.
Folau grabbed the hosts' other try to go with his sensational earlier assist, the five-pointer bringing him level with Blues and All Blacks great Doug Howlett at the top of the all-time Super Rugby charts with 59.
Asked to describe Folau's impact, Robertson quipped post-match: "He should be working for NASA, he's pretty good in the air."
After a poor outing against the Brumbies last Friday in Canberra, this was a season-righting performance from the defending Australian conference champions. They'll head to Newcastle on Friday for a potential danger game against the Sunwolves, who were this week told they won't be playing in Super Rugby beyond 2020, Gibson hinting he'll look to fulfil some of the Waratahs' mandatory rest weeks for Wallabies players.
Buoyed by their eight-point victory on Saturday night and a performance that was easily the best of the year when you factor in the conditions, the win has the potential to kick-start what had so far been a stuttering 2019 campaign.
"Well our conference is incredibly tight, that's the significant thing, we've dropped a couple of close games, but we're in the fight and that's pleasing," Gibson said. "And as you said, we can start to build and launch from here around a different aspect of our play, something that we've been working hard on to improve."
Improvement will be a big word for the Crusaders, too, as they seek to park what must have been an unimaginably challenging week and prepare for another huge challenge in Wellington against the Hurricanes on Friday.
Robertson was never going to use the horrific events that have changed New Zealand forever as an excuse for his side's lacklustre effort, but he will never doubt their ability to reset and get back to being the same team that has swept all before them over the past two years either.
"It was special and hence we so desperately wanted to keep that going, and like you said before about playing for our people and putting on a good show," Robertson said of the Crusaders' streak coming to an end at 19 wins. "One good thing when you reflect is the way we won those games: from behind, from in front...finals footy. So it was a great run and [now we have] the opportunity to start again."