The best Super Rugby final in history?
August 4, 2014
Andy Withers, Brett McKay and Brittany Mitchell dissect the Waratahs' dramatic Super Rugby final win
What a final. The "best game ever" tag does get overused a bit these days, but it feels appropriate and just after New South Wales Waratahs and Crusaders played out an 80-minute cliff-hanger in Sydney on Saturday. The superb grand final, in which the lead changed hands numerous times in the second half, came down to an 80th-minute Bernard Foley penalty goal at the very edge of his range; it was a wonderful conclusion to a truly outstanding match.
Here are the Super Rugby talking points from Saturday night's epic final. Have your say via the comments below, or jump onto Twitter and tell the world using the #Scrum5 hashtag.
Michael Cheika can name his price
ESPN colleague Greg Growden has been telling us all season that Michael Cheika is a very wanted man in world rugby coaching circles, and the Super Rugby title only adds to his value. Having now claimed the premier club / provincial competition in both hemispheres, it's clear that Cheika's methods translate to whichever team is writing the cheques. And make no mistake, if the Waratahs don't lock him down soon, someone else will.
Michael Cheika celebrates with Michael Hooper following the Waratahs win © Getty Images
"The thing that's extra here [having already won a European title] is that I had all my family and friends here, and it's my home state," Cheika said post-match. If that's not an obvious enough sign that he's pretty keen to stay, then it may not get any clearer. Cheika has transformed the Waratahs into the most watchable Super Rugby team in Australia, and even a significant contract upgrade will be paid back in spades through the gate and memberships in 2015. It should be a simple message for the Waratahs board: Lock. Him. In. At whatever terms he asks for.
The point is, Cheika has delivered everything he said he wanted to. He's changed the culture of the team. He's got them united and playing for him, and for each other. He's got them playing a way that people enjoy watching. He's ended the drought for New South Wales rugby. There no other box for him to tick off.
And in these days of fiscal rugby responsibility, the Waratahs can't afford to look a gift coach - who's delivering on the field, and increasing revenue off it - in the mouth. Further, and whether the other states like it or not, a strong Waratahs side is good for the game nationally. You can bet that Bill Pulver and the Australian Rugby Union accountants will be "encouraging" Cheika's retention, too.
How's this for openers ...
What a cracking start. If anything, it looked as though the Waratahs were showing a few nerves early on, with a premature lineout jump, and the ball spilling out the side of a ruck in the first few minutes. But then Bernard Foley kicked the first of his seven penalties, and it just settled things down a bit; nudged them back into their groove, if you like.
Smile for the camera! © Getty Images
Adam Ashley-Cooper won the restart and a Kurtley Beale cut-out pass found Foley on the outside of Colin Slade, and in space. From the eventual ruck, Wycliff Palu found metres up the middle, Beale came back left to Ashley-Cooper, and the Wallabies winger straightened, aiming at the inside shoulder of his opposite, Ryan Crotty, and the slow inside cover of Sam Whitelock, and set sail for the try-line. Ashley-Cooper smiled for the cameras, and the Tahs had the fast start they wanted.
Two more penalties from Foley put the Waratahs 14-0 up, and the boisterous types west of the ditch responsible for online talk of mismatches and thumpings began preparing their "I told yers ..." follow-ups.
And then the reply came.
Hulking Crusaders winger Nemani Nadolo made a break down the left and was brought down inside the Waratahs' 22, but the ball went free out the back and was toed back downfield by Tahs scrum-half Nick Phipps.
Crotty won the race back to retrieve the ball near his 22, and immediately flicked it up to his skipper, Kieran Read, to his right. Read looked wide, and there were already four team-mates in position to take a pass. Slade took the pass and headed up the centre corridor before offloading in a tackle to Read back on the inside. Read found another seven or eight metres and did the same to flanker Matt Todd on the outside. Todd looked up to see nothing but a corner post 40 metres away and pinned the ears back. Ashley-Cooper came across in cover, but the next young punk Kiwi No.7 stepped inside him and crashed over.
It was a counter-attacking Crusaders try from the very early Robbie Deans playbooks, and would've looked at home in the highlights reels from a decade ago. It was the reminder that this match was far from one-sided, and that if the 'Tahs were going to triumph, it wouldn't be easy.
And it was in the 18th minute. "Strap yourselves in," I remember thinking at the time.
Set piece mirrors flip-flopping ascendency
Considering all the talk in the build-up about the Waratahs' ongoing lineout issues and scrum concerns - ESPN columnist and former All Blacks prop, Craig Dowd, called it their "soft underbelly" - it was rather surprising to see the Waratahs' forwards holding strong in the first half.
The lineout went well, even with variations of jumpers receiving in the middle and at the back, and when Whitelock and Crusaders hooker Corey Flynn had to re-do a couple of their early calls in person because of the crowd noise, I started thinking the Waratahs might actually get away with this. Tahs lock Kane Douglas even finished the first half by getting across on a couple of Crusaders throws. It was the same in the scrum. Benn Robinson was having some early success against Owen Franks, and the Waratahs' eight was holding strong on the Crusaders' put-in.
But after half-time, it became clear that, as the momentum within the match swung, the set-piece went with it. As the Crusaders drew level at 20-all just after the break, they forced a tight-head with Wyatt Crockett getting the better of Sekope Kepu, and then two minutes later won a penalty when Kepu was pinged for angling in - despite Crockett's favourite trick of adopting an angle usually reserved for nose-to-curb parking. That penalty would be the first time the Crusaders led the match.
As the game went back and forwards through the final 30 minutes, so too did the set-piece dominance; in the end, however, it's all academic. The Crusaders weren't able to capitalise on the Waratahs' perceived issues, and the Waratahs, with a shiny cup, won't care now anyway.
The moments of 'wha .....?'
In that unbelievably tense last half-hour, a number of players had moments that at the time they might like to have had again.
Corey Flynn's cynical boot of the ball at the back of the ruck in the 54th minute allowed Foley to slot his fifth penalty of the night - he'd go on to set a Super Rugby record of 23 points in the final - and the Waratahs reeled in the lead the Crusaders had taken for the first time only five minutes beforehand.
Sekope Kepu might've wished he'd aimed his tackling arm two inches lower - or that Tom Taylor was two inches taller - in the 56th minute, after which Slade put the Crusaders back in front.
Passions were high during the Super Rugby grand final © Getty Images
Will Skelton put an enormous hit on Franks in the 65th minute, which could've set up a turnover in attacking territory for the Waratahs, but then couldn't get his big frame out of the way quick enough, and was penalised.
Not 10 minutes later, the Waratahs held the ball for 14 phases as they moved toward the Crusaders' 22, only to be penalised for not releasing. Two minutes later again, in the 76th minute, replacement hooker Tolo Latu, and bench lock Mitchell Chapman were so eager to get up on the Crusaders' attack that they were pinged for offside in their own 22. Slade would put the Crusaders back in lead, with four minutes to play.
And the biggest 'oh no' moment of them all: "Perhaps I opened the door for the ref to make a decision and whether you agree or disagree that's the way it was and unfortunately he kicked the goal," Crusaders flanker and All Blacks captain Richie McCaw said of the decisive penalty that gave Foley the 80th-minute shot at goal. McCaw had earned a little chat with referee Craig Joubert earlier in the half about ruck infringements, and whether that played a part in the end we may never know. As McCaw acknowledged, he should never have given Joubert a reason to penalise him. McCaw had spoken earlier in the week about the biggest games being decided "in a moment"; he probably wasn't counting on that moment being his.
For the Waratahs, it was hard to pick a player who didn't have a great game, but here's a few that really stood out.
Ashley-Cooper is an obvious one; even without his two tries, he had one of his best games of the year. A deserving Man of the Match. Skipper Michael Hooper was enormous, figuratively if perhaps not literally, and showed a lot of class in sharing the cup-lifting moment with injured skipper Dave Dennis.
Phipps was brilliant, and is now a genuine chance to start in Will Genia's absence in the first Bledisloe in a fortnight. Foley showed wonderful composure to land the winning penalty goal, but he had steered his team around beautifully for 79 minutes before that.
Not just a team of stars, but a star team © Getty Images
Douglas played out of his skin in his last match in Australia for the time being, reminding everyone of what the Wallabies are about to miss. Every time the Waratahs found space, Kurtley Beale's fingerprints were all over the ball. Wycliff Palu might just have outpointed Kieran Read, who had a storming game himself. Tolo Latu, I'd not seen a lot of before this match but he's one I'll remember from here on.
For the Crusaders, there weren't quite so many star performers but those who did stand out very nearly did the job for the seven-time champions.
Read was excellent, as I've mentioned, showing precisely that dangerous link game I'd outlined only last Friday. Andy Ellis was the spark that fired the Crusaders into action, and was sorely missed when injury forced him off in the final 10 minutes. The Israel Dagg who played the final is so far removed from the Israel Dagg who was dropped earlier in the season, it's not funny. Slade lifted when Dan Carter succumbed to his thigh injury. McCaw did what he always does, even if this time he went into one ruck too many.
Bonus point: Joubert confirms his standing
Only two weeks ago, I said after the qualifying finals that the matches were the spectacles they were because of the way they were officiated by Steve Walsh and Craig Joubert. Walsh was always going to struggle to get the final once an Australian team was confirmed, and Joubert got the job.
But once again, this match will be remembered as possibly the best Super Rugby Final in history because of the way he allowed the game to flow for the full 80 minutes. Yes, there were 14 penalty goals kicked, and, yes, a refereeing decision essentially decided the game, but I'll happily take up the argument that the game will be so memorable because of the sub-plots and intrigues that the goal-kicking shootout produced.
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