‘‘They’ll probably think we’ll fall down in the second half,’’ Waratahs coach Michael Cheika said of the Crusaders at half-time of the Super Rugby final.
He was confident his side wouldn’t. Two minutes into the second half, though, they face-planted.
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NSW win the Super Rugby 2014 title against the Crusaders in a thrilling 33-32 triumph at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
Kurtley Beale’s desperate covering tackle on winger Nemani Nadolo appeared to have just dragged a foot into touch. The TMO thought otherwise, and as the try was controversially awarded, Tahs hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau forlornly limped from the field.
At 20-all, with the tide turning, there was suddenly more than just a breakthrough Super Rugby win for the Tahs at stake.
Australian rugby has been gazing deep into its own navel for years, probably since Jonny Wilkinson broke a thousand hearts in the World Cup final in 2003, as the game struggles to find relevancy in a congested and ever-changing market.
This season, the men in blue have provided hope anew — and the way they sealed the deal with a minute to go can only mean the bandwagon overflows heading into the international season.
A mongrel penalty goal to the Crusaders from close range with four minutes to go would normally have broken everyone’s hearts. A familiar tune. We’ve been hurt before.
Then Bernard Foley coolly slotted one in response in the final minute, from 45 metres out, and Australian rugby was back. Way back.
It was a victory not just for rugby, but rugby played as it should be.
Indeed, the result almost ran secondary to the other highly anticipated number of the night: the godforsaken crowd figure. How many souls braved a chilly Sydney night and a typically clogged Parramatta Road apparently clarified if rugby was off life support.
The official number posted was 61,823. That’s a record Super Rugby crowd. Not bad for a ‘‘neutral stadium’’ miles away from the Waratahs’ traditional home at Allianz Stadium.
Yet the most heartening aspect for the suits at the ARU must have been the news earlier in the week that more than half the tickets sold came from outside the traditional rugby strongholds of Sydney’s north shore and eastern suburbs.
What isn’t quantifiable is how many souls have renewed or taken up interest in the endangered species of rugby union because of the attractive style of play demanded by Cheika.
Those in the NSW set-up enthuse he’s among the best they’ve had. He’s been charming on the outside, short-fused behind the scenes, but will put any player back in his box, regardless of whether he is Israel Folau or a bench player battling to keep his spot.
But Cheika, they say, also empowers and gives ownership — and that is the greatest attribute any coach can claim.
It was evident all season as the Waratahs lurched from indifferent team to possible threats to minor premiers to grand final favourites, and there last night as the seven-time champion Crusaders threw all they had at the NSW team.
A player’s coach but a reporter’s nightmare, Cheika is cut from the same paranoid cloth as rugby league’s Des Hasler, whose ‘‘fly under the radar’’ mantra has become the stuff of legend.
Beale and Folau were off limits all week in the build-up — especially the off-contract Beale, who the Waratahs hope to stitch up with a new contract in coming weeks despite apparent interest from rugby league.
His perfectly timed pass in the opening minutes to Foley, which led to the Tahs’ first try, highlighted how far he has come from belting Cooper Vuna at the Rebels in Durban last year.
The NRL would relish pinching back a player.
It could’ve had Folau had it not eased its salary cap by $240,000 a season to sign him when he left AFL two years ago. Now Izzy is the best thing to happen to rugby since it lured Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri a decade ago.
It’s not the league converts who spark the most interest in Australian rugby, but the Tahs.
In 2003, they drew crowds of around 30,000 at the Sydney Football Stadium, in the most congested and toughest sporting market in the world.
But since then, they have largely underwhelmed.
Cheika’s mantra of ‘‘if you build it … actually, if you run the ball, they will come’’ mentality was there for all to see in the final.
Notwithstanding the importance of Saturday night's result, the match that will really matter comes in a fortnight, at the same venue.
The wisest owls in Australian rugby have identified the first Bledisloe Cup against the All Blacks as one of the most critical matches in recent memory.
The thought of a Wallabies victory, with a return match at the fortress of Eden Park in Auckland then a possible decider in Brisbane, is mouth-watering.
New Zealand spanked Australia last year. The famed silverware had rarely seemed so unattainable.
But now the unthinkable is possible. The impossible seems possible.
The Waratahs just showed us why, refusing to fall down when many thought they just might.