All eyes were on the return of a 103-test legend, but it was the performance of a man who is yet to earn one cap that stole the show.
Robbie Fruean romped away with two tries and had a big hand in another as the Crusaders last night continued to put a scratchy start to the season in the rearview mirror. They failed to gain any places in the New Zealand Conference as the Chiefs and Highlanders just keep winning, but after a bonus-point victory over the Waratahs they look poised to strike if either side trips up.
But first to matters of national importance. Richie McCaw returned in minute 56, thundering around in the blindside flank position previously occupied by George Whitelock.
He was busy, found himself in the open twice on one occasion and earned the wrath of Jonathan Kaplan on another. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What he won't enjoy watching so much is how replacement Sarel Pretorius ducked down the blindside to score a simple try while he was still engaged to the scrum.
Described as an anaerobic freak by his coach Todd Blackadder, McCaw might have disputed that suggestion after a hectic final five minutes as the Waratahs tried to conjure a miracle.
That Pretorius try gave the home side a late sniff they probably didn't deserve after they had failed to deal with the threat posed by Fruean in the centres.
Fruean, whose choice of haircut implies he is trying to channel his inner Travis Bickle, started cold, missing Adam Ashley-Cooper as the Wallaby utility set up the home side to score first.
Then he got hot - really hot. Twice he carved through the Waratahs' porous midfield defence, finishing the job once himself and flicking the ball to Zac Guildford the next. It was probably just as well Guildford ranged up in support because a split second earlier Fruean had ignored a simpler pass to Dan Carter in the belief he had fooled the last line of defence.
Just when the Waratahs' resilience was starting to become annoying in the second half, Fruean popped up again to seemingly put the game out of reach. He scooped a pass up around his ankles, then drifted wide to back up a half break by Guildford.
It was intelligent footy, aided by a dry track and natural light.
"It's great playing over here on a dry track in the afternoon," captain Kieran Read said. "For us it's about building in this competition. Momentum comes about through winning."
Fruean is building his own momentum. The 23-year-old centre, whose career was nearly ended by open-heart surgery when he was still in his teens, is an interesting case.
He was monitored closely by the All Black panel last year after some explosive early season form alongside Sonny Bill Williams.
Not to put too fine a point on it, they felt he didn't do anywhere near enough in between ball carries and would be chewed up and spat out by the best teams. To add weight to their suspicions, Fruean's form tailed off badly in the second half of last year's Super 15, even as the Crusaders launched their improbable run to the final.
This year he has not hit as many high notes but he has still remained a constant menace to opposition defences.
Whether he's done anything to address the other shortcomings remains to be seen when Steve Hansen names his initial All Black squad, but you suspect his is a face that does not fit the picture.
Crusaders (Robbie Fruean 2, Zac Guildford, Adam Whitelock tries; Tom Taylor 3 pen 3 con); Waratahs (Ataeli Pakalani, Wycliff Palu, Sarel Pretorius tries; Brendan McKibbin 4 pen 2 con, Berrick Barnes con). Halftime: 14-13.By Dylan Cleaver Email Dylan