Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Foley takes home side to the summit

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Bernard Foley of the Waratahs. Photo / Getty Images
Bernard Foley of the Waratahs. Photo / Getty Images

The Crusaders began slowly, rose to a strong sequence deep in the Super 15 tournament, but could not close the deal.

That pattern was duplicated in the final against the Waratahs, who clinched their first title with one of the most dramatic conclusions in the competition's 18-year history.

It came down to Bernard Foley lifting a 45m penalty across the bar when referee Craig Joubert penalised Richie McCaw again for work at the breakdown.

When the emotion has faded and the Crusaders pick through the carcass of a sixth campaign without a title, they will rue bookend quarters about this latest challenge. They
were sluggish at the start and untidy at the end.

The Tahs sizzled out of the tunnel and banked 14 points in a ruthless training ground to pitch production. Other sides would have capitulated but the Crusaders clawed back through the middle sections of the game then yielded a 10-6 deficit in the final quarter.

This side of the Ditch we delight in mocking the flaws of Australian sides in the Super 15 and prodding a stick at the Wallabies' soft underbelly. It is one code where they battle to impose any regular big-brother attitude.

Now they've cracked one. The Tahs soaked up a mid-match resurgence which would have floored other sides and then delivered an attacking retort which explained their season-long prominence. They were the best attacking and defensive side in the tournament and combined those when it mattered. Only just, but that was enough.

The arbiter is the scoreboard. Nothing else matters in a final. Remember the 2011 World Cup result?

Let's not connect this to the approaching Rugby Championship where the All Blacks and Wallabies will differ considerably in playing personnel and approach. Let's just view it for what it was.

This was a belter of a Super 15 match with enough theatre to match James Kerr's late try to win the title for the Crusaders in 1998, their win by a point in a thriller in the chiller at Canberra in 2000, their fog final triumph in Christchurch in 2006, the converted extra time try from Bryan Habana to win the crown for the Bulls in 2007 and the Chiefs' storming finish to nail glory last year.

Assumptions got the boot from the off as the Tahs won their opening lineout and did not make a mistake until almost eight minutes.

They were in a peerless mood and so accurate as they shifted the ball to stack on a cracking try to Adam Ashley-Cooper and forced the Crusaders to infringe.

Foley kicked the goals as the Crusaders tried to find some focus away from the blazing assault.

They clawed back within a converted try at the interval and got some confidence when Sam Whitelock picked off a Tahs' lineout to thwart their final attacking raid.

Nemani Nadolo got a benefit-of-the-doubt try, the scrum hummed, Colin Slade kicked the goals and the visitors were in front with 20 minutes to run. They had the momentum, the title was in their sights, but they tripped as the Tahs surged.

Ashley-Cooper iced a flowing move as Israel Folau and Kurtley Beale deceived and created space.

Foley kept his kicking nerve and 61,823 spectators boiled with anxiety.

The coaches were left in emotional limbo as this epic churned to its conclusion when Joubert made his ruling. The Crusaders delivered the invitation.

The kick was at the edge of Foley's range. About 45m lay between fame and failure in the allure of this exceptional contest.

It was more difficult than Derick Hougaard's last stroke conversion to win the Bulls' 2007 title and had 18 years of fruitless toil riding on his strike.

Every aspect of Foley's play this season has been a revelation, and he bolstered that with his superb strike.

Finally, the Waratahs became the seventh franchise to plant their flag at the summit of Super Rugby.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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