Israel Folau has become Super Rugby’s joint record try scorer as the NSW Waratahs cast sentiment aside to shatter the Crusaders’ aura of invincibility with an emotion-charged 20-12 victory over the reigning champions.
In the titleholders’ first outing since the Christchurch terror attacks rocked their city eight days ago, the Crusaders had their record 19 match-winning streak come to a screeching halt at the SCG on Saturday night.
Early tries from lock Jed Holloway and winger Cam Clark, in his first start of the season, and Folau’s 59th five-pointer for NSW earned the Waratahs a famous win.
Folau’s strike six minutes from fulltime not only sealed the Waratahs’ stirring victory but also pulled the superstar fullback level with former All Black Doug Howlett for the most tries in Super Rugby.
The Crusaders hadn’t lost for more than a year, a 25-17 round-five loss in 2018 to the Highlanders in Dunedin, before the competition giants reeled off 14 successive wins to claim an unrivalled ninth title.
But, whether it was the slippery conditions or the mental drain of dealing with last week’s tragedy, the Crusaders were off their game against a Waratahs outfit playing as though their season was on the line.
“It’s a tough week but, look, we’re Crusaders; we don’t make excuses,” said Crusaders coach Scott Robertson.
“We were really desperate to play well and represent our people and show how much we care.
“And you could see how hard we worked, but I think we dropped enough ball for the whole season.”
In a poignant start to the night, the Waratahs and Crusaders entered the playing arena side by side before huddling together, coaches included, for a minute’s silence before kick-off to remember the 50 victims killed.
But the Waratahs wasted little time getting down to business, with Holloway charging through some uncharacteristically soft defence from the Crusaders to score under the posts in just the fourth minute.
When Folau leapt high to collect a midfield bomb from Bernard Foley before putting Clark away down the left wing for the Waratahs’ second try, the hosts were 12 points in front after as many minutes.
Only a desperate try saver on the line from winger Breydon Ennor on Foley saved the Crusaders from falling in an even deeper hole, before the champions struck back with a dubious try to George Bridge on the half hour.
Replays showed the inside pass from hooker Codie Taylor to the scorer was forward, but the try stood.
A Foley penalty put the Waratahs 15-7 ahead at the break and, unlike last year in Christchurch when they relinquished a 29-0 lead to the Crusaders, this time there was no such second-half collapse.
“It’s probably the first time tonight we’ve played that tactic,” Gibson said of the aerial kicks sent in Folau’s direction.
“We haven’t been really kicking him a lot of ball, nor been good enough to put it in the right areas for him.
“Tonight we had a different game plan around getting to these guys through the air. Like the champion player he is, when you ask him to pull out something special he does.
“We learnt a large deal from last year’s fixture with the Crusaders and this year we were able to be far more consistent and apply that pressure for longer.”
NSW WARATAHS 20 (Cameron Clark, Israel Folau, Jed Holloway tries Bernard Foley con pen) bt CRUSADERS 12 (George Bridge, Will Jordan tries Brett Cameron con) at Sydney Cricket Ground. Referee: Jaco Peyper.
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