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Since the dawn of Super Rugby, coaches, players, pundits and punters alike have wondered how to beat the eternal powerhouse that are the Crusaders.
And on Saturday night, the NSW Waratahs may have found a solution: make sure they have 13 players and you have 15.
And even then, it can be a close race, as the Waratahs found out, repelling the fast-finishing Crusaders 24-21 at one of the 13-man game’s spiritual grounds, Sydney’s Leichhardt Oval.
Tane Edmed – whose father Steve shed blood on this surface for the Balmain Tigers – was a wreck of gibberish when interviewed by Stan Sports analyst Morgan Turinui.
“I don’t have the words,” Edmed said, his lower lip quivering.
“I have 30 friends and my family here. I have these boys [his team-mates]. And the fans have been exceptional.
“Some of the things we went through last year, we didn’t win a game… the support and the belief that ‘DC’ [Darren Coleman] instilled…we know we can do it,” Edmed said.
He left to join his teammates. And he cried again. Beautiful things.
Crusaders captain Cody Taylor said the Waratahs “wanted more”.
“We didn’t start well and they capitalized and put points on the board. We had a hard time tying them up. We didn’t play smart in the conditions – it was a dewy ball. We could have been better there.
That one side of New Zealand’s South Island – where slippery balls are simply known as ‘the balls’ – was dominated by high-profile fun runners from Sydney was saying a lot.
Indeed before the match it had seemed inconceivable.
Yet after Edmed netted a 39th-minute penalty goal in the game – one which saw the Waratahs lead 17-0 at half-time – the small but boisterous crowd nudged each other and thought: who are these Waratahs and what did they do with the Waratahs?
With fans still emptying out of the local pubs, left winger (and player of the match) Dylan Pietsch opened the scoring in the sixth minute with a fine hit run off a flat pass from Jake Gordon.
Five minutes later, Izaia Perese danced to the line before setting up right winger Mark Nawaqanitawase with a one-handed backhand.
When Edmed pulled off the sideline conversion, said crowd began to believe, albeit cautiously – as the pedigree of their opponents is well known.
Still, the Waratahs looked more confident, like they were having fun. Coach Coleman definitely instilled an edict into his charges to “play.” That’s not to say having fun – it’s physical, tight rugby when it counts. But there was no deer in the headlights of his XXIII.
“We can’t stop playing; 17 points won’t win this,” Coleman said. Stan Sports at halftime.
“We have to keep playing rather than defending our lead.”
They haven’t stopped playing. But neither did the Crusaders.
the rolling maul near the Tahs line gave a penalty try, a conversion and the dismissal of Tahs No. 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco.
The Crusaders sounded the changes, with 60% of their tight five replaced. The Tahs won a defensive lineup near their line. Then they won another one against throwing.
And the crowd roars again.
The ‘Sader came anyway. Even though four All Blacks are missing, they are the competition’s test material. Sione Havili Talitui scolded. The conversion made it 17-14.
And then something happened that would have seemed inconceivable at this time last year: the home crowd kicked into high gear, pressing the home team. And the players got up, obviously.
The crusaders were gone. They returned more balls than usual. They disclosed penalties. Had men off the field with maps.
Crusaders replacement lock Hamish Dalzell was involved in high tackles twice – one on Edmed, the other on Michael Hooper.
The first was considered a burger nothing. The second saw him kicked out, following Hooper into the race.
Under the pressure of the crowd, the Waratahs took on the group of seven Crusaders with a maul which spawned a penalty try.
6 Argentinian Pablo Matera was immediately condemned and the Crusaders would finish the game, all but the last minute, with 13 men.
With 11 minutes remaining, the Waratahs lost 10 minutes. And they started exploiting space. Will Harris burned on the pitch. The Crusaders won a ruck penalty.
And the champions did not go easy overnight. With 13 men, they scored a try after a fine break from David Havili which led to snarling prop Fletcher Newell.
Simon Hickey converted. And it was three points apart. And the Waratah may have wondered: how do you kill these people?
Forever they came: Jack Goodhue prominent. Giant Sam Whitelock. Matera has returned.
But the Waratahs defense was inspired. Charlie Gamble was like a stocky, athletic sumo; limit building.
And the Waratahs, who had won exactly no games in 2021, had landed the biggest provincial scalp in the game.