Waratahs vs. Crusaders: Winners and Losers from Super Rugby Final
It was every bit the classic that Super Rugby fans could have hoped for on Saturday as the Waratahs claimed their maiden championship with a 33-32 victory over seven-time winners the Crusaders.
A last-gasp Bernard Foley penalty gave the New South Wales hosts their one-point triumph, capitalising on their minor championship win with a trophy of much greater significance.
In a back-and-forth encounter, the New Zealand visitors gave a fine account of their ability, but they were ultimately beaten by a Waratahs side that held a 14-0 lead early on, and eventually made it count.
We break down some of the biggest winners and losers from the epic encounter, in both an individual and team-based capacity.
Winners: Waratahs Hold out in Championship Style for Deserved Glory
It was almost a victory of Crusaders-eque proportions as the Waratahs rode through an onslaught of opponent pressure, their one-point win symbolic of a tough, draining battle.
ESPN Scrum praised the quality of the occasion:
In the end, though, it was the side's healthy dose of star talent that saw them through, the likes of Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and others getting them over the line.
Those backs in particular were critical in taking the fight to their enemies, and the Crusaders' trip to Sydney was unsuccessful as a result.
Establishing a 14-0 lead after just 14 minutes, the 'Tahs played a dangerous game in then welcoming the opposition in, but as only true champions can, the home team bent but were not broken.
In the end, 33-32 sums up the deserving route through which Michael Cheika's side got the better of Todd Blackadder's line-up, their jubilant reaction upon the final whistle signifying just how much this means to the region.
Losers: Another Dan Carter Absence Takes Its Toll
Another massive rugby occasion, yet another match that Dan Carter was unable to see through to the end. He was withdrawn in the first half of the ANZ Stadium clash.
The physicality of Saturday's match ultimately told as a knock to the ankle prevented the Crusaders' bastion from having his desired impact. Fairfax Media's Liam Napier summarised some of Carter's past disappointments:
Got to feel for Carter - seems every major match these days he suffers injury - World Cup, 100th test, SR final— Liam Napier (@liamnapierffx) August 2, 2014
Without doing a disservice to Tom Taylor's credentials, he's not the same player as the man he replaced in the Super Rugby final.
Apart from missing the extra, supremely reliable kicking presence as an alternative to Colin Slade, the Crusaders' fluidity through the hands looked slightly stunted, with other figures having to lean their priorities toward midfield.
More than anything, though, this was simply another agonising occasion for Carter to miss out on, and who can quantify what might have been were the long-term star allowed to carry on?
Winners: Waratahs Cleaned Up Their Line Errors When It Mattered Most
For much of 2014, the line-out has been something of a weak point for Cheika's side and an area in which the Crusaders might have looked to dominate.
However, such doubts were dispelled early on by the Sydney hosts. They still lost a damning quarter of their line throws on Saturday, but limiting the impact of those blows was better than the side have produced at times this season.
The Crusaders boast a lot of power in this section of the set piece, so it was impressive to instead see the Waratahs competing for the second ball and exerting good pressure once their opponents had taken the ball down.
Granted, the line-out didn't become a base for Waratahs dominance overnight, but it at least prevented Blackadder's men from claiming the same advantage they showed against the Sharks in their semi-final.
Losers: Crusaders Hit by Their Own Brand of Intensity
Coming to ANZ Stadium, the Crusaders may have been expected to bring the same aggression with which they hit most of their fixtures, particularly those taking place in post-season.
However, it was the Waratahs who looked more ferocious, especially in the first half, when initiative was of such a crucial importance, and the home team benefited massively as a result.
Ruckin Good Stats break down the Waratahs' first-half stats:
Halftime: Waratahs possession 58%, territory 61%. Ball spent 7% inside the Waratahs 22, 11% inside the Crusaders 22 #WARvCRU— Ruckin Good Stats (@ruckingoodstats) August 2, 2014
Without ball in hand, the hosts ran a high line, making a conscious effort to funnel the visitors' back-line channels, and with possession, they hit the breakdown in a feral manner, winning numerous penalties as a result of their opponents' violations.
Foley was subsequently allowed to take advantage with the boot, and by half time the 'Tahs No. 10 already had five penalties to his name.
How poetic it is that Crusaders veteran Richie McCaw was the man who committed the crucial offence that gave Foley his 79th-minute opportunity to seal the title.
Winners: Adam Ashley-Cooper an Inspiration
Adam Ashley-Cooper had a match to remember on Saturday, leading the Waratahs' back powers with the same method he's brought to their cause for the whole of 2014—and indeed since joining in 2012.
It was Cheika's No. 13 who found the first try of the fixture after just four minutes, adding a second to his tally in the 62nd minute, once again providing the much-needed spearhead in his side's assault.
Prior to the final, Tom Decent of the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Ashley-Cooper had recited an "inspirational" poem of his own creation to his teammates, and it appears to have had the desired impact.
Prop Sekope Kepu is quoted as saying of the speech:
It certainly sent shivers down my spine. It’s pretty emotional stuff, you can’t get any better than that. When someone goes to length and includes 30 odd blokes in a poem, touching on a little bit about his experience with them or where they’ve come from, it's pretty special.
Last week's win over the Brumbies was Ashley-Cooper's first appearance in a Super Rugby semi-final, and he made his first outing in a grand final count in a major way.
As a great servant to Australian rugby, the outside centre has been loyal, and some within the Waratahs camp would argue that none were as deserving of the reward as him.