Heartbreak for Tahs after record Crusaders comeback

The Waratahs came away from Christchurch empty-handed yet again at the weekend, falling 31-29 to the Crusaders having incredibly led 29-0 after half an hour. Tries to Cam Clark, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Israel Folau and Curtis Rona looked to have put them in the box seat for a first win on Canterbury soil since 2004. But a controversial try from prop Joe Moody got the hosts back in the game, and the reigning champions went on to record the biggest comeback in Super Rugby history to squeeze home.

Finding a way to lose a game from such a dominant position is something the visitor’s will need to reflect on this week. But in mitigation, they were let down by officials who failed to spot Moody’s off-the-ball elbow to Kurtley Beale’s throat in the build-up to the Crusaders first try, and they endured game-ending injuries to Damien Fitzpatrick, Will Miller and Ned Hanigan that left replacement prop Harry Johnson-Holmes packing down at openside for the crucial last 10 minutes.

While the loss is a painful one, it did show that when this team truly clicks, it is more than capable of challenging the best in the competition. They now have six games left of the regular season to make good on that undoubted promise.

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It was an inauspicious start to proceedings, Israel Folau harshly adjudged to have taken the man in the air off the kick-off to put the home side in prime position. The Crusaders duly put together several slick phases before being turned over inside the 22, only for Nick Phipps to delay his opening box kick, and the subsequent charge down caused further flutters in the visitor’s defence before Kurtley Beale found touch.

But despite the nervy opening, it was the Waratahs who opened the scoring from their first attack. Turning the Crusaders lineout around in their favour, the ball was sent infield for Bernard Foley to break the line and fire a two-handed pass to the waiting Taqele Naiyaravoro on the left flank.

The big man was brought down well by George Bridge, and possession flitted briefly back and forth between both sides before Michael Hooper carried hard, Phipps swung it back to the open side, and five well-timed passes later, Cam Clark was over in the opposite corner.

Curtis Rona_Waratahs v Crusaders_2018

Curtis Rona dives in for the Waratahs’ fourth try

Quick hands down the line almost had the Crusaders away for an immediate response on eight minutes, only for Mataele’s handling to let him down at the crucial moment. But the visitor’s continued to look in tune, and improved work at the breakdown earned a couple of penalties, and a successful kick at the second attempt for Foley to make it 8-0.

It got even better a few minutes later, the Crusaders pushing too hard for a retort, and a loose pass from centre Tim Bateman picked off by a soaring Naiyaravoro. The 125kg winger had too much gas for the chasers to reel in, and his eighth try of the season and Foley’s conversion, opened up a surprise 15pt lead.

The Crusaders weren’t doing much wrong, their shifting patterns and offloads were finding holes in the Tahs defence, but they were yet to get any pay. Conversely, everything their opponents were touching seemed to be turning to gold, and when Folau took a midfield bomb as only he can, strode down the touchline and exchanged passes with Beale to crash over for their third five-pointer, New South Wales fans were in dreamland.

So I’m not sure where else was left for them to go when they grabbed a fourth before the half hour. A crossfield kick from Foley after the forwards had done the hard yards to set the platform, was plucked from the air by a leaping Folau. The ball ricocheted off Bridge as the fullback tried to find Naiyaravoro, and sat up invitingly for Curtis Rona to scoop up and leave the Cantabrians in the crowd scratching their heads at what they were seeing.

Foley converted again, and the side that hadn’t won in these parts for 14 long years were in pole position to smash that particular hoodoo with a 29-0 advantage – against a team that had been averaging only 17pts at the wrong end before kick-off. But history doesn’t lie, and the resilience that has been a hallmark of all great Crusaders sides down the years runs through their veins.

Joe Moody_Crusaders v Waratahs_2018

Try controversy: Joe Moody goes over moments after what should have been a red card

However, the try that got the hosts off and running on the comeback trial didn’t come without controversy. George Bridge, the Crusaders’ brightest spark to that point, threatened again with a trademark dash through a blue wall to get his side on the front-foot. But when the ball came infield for Richie Mo’unga to step inside Sekope Kepu and put prop Joe Moody under the posts, the path he plundered had been opened up by an earlier intervention from Moody’s elbow to the throat of Kurtley Beale.

Replays indicated a clear red card offence, but while nothing was seen by the on-field officials, it was the lack of a follow-up from the TMO that caused consternation, particularly given the fact that it was Moody that went on to score the try.

The Waratahs’ lot suddenly turned full circle, the industrious Will Miller sent for an HIA, the second Tah to do so after Damien Fitzpatrick had been replaced early in the piece by Hugh Roach, having failed to meet the required protocols. And with a reorganised pack back under pressure from a five-metre lineout, the suddenly buoyant Crusaders struck again from a driving maul, hooker Codie Taylor touching down.

Things got worse when Phipps then saw yellow for slowing the ball down as the home side threatened another in added time before the break. And they got it from the ensuing scrum, Bateman giving Mo’unga the chance to fire a long pass wide and stretch the outnumbered Waratah backline, and Seta Tamanivalu powering his way over near the flag, despite the combined attentions of Folau, Beale and Foley.

A breathless first half that looked to be heading for the upset of the season, ended with a superb sideline conversion from Mo’unga, and with the ladder leaders and reigning champions firmly back in their pomp, despite trailing by 10pts.

Bryn Hall_Crusaders v Waratahs_2018

Bryn Hall takes on the Waratahs line

With six more minutes to enjoy the extra man after the restart, you wondered how long that would last. It seemed just half of that when Jordan Taufua slid home in the 43rd minute, only to be called back for a forward pass from Michael Ala’alatoa. But the Crusaders smelled blood in the water, and despite Phipps returning with no further damage, the pressure began to ramp up on the Waratahs.

That wasn’t helped by an increasingly lop-sided penalty count in favour of their hosts, or two brain snaps in quick succession when Jed Holloway kicked the ball in the ruck, followed by a deliberate knockdown from Naiyaravoro, that resulted in an unavoidable yellow for the winger.

Ned Hanigan then joined Fitzpatrick and Miller on the injured list, and with no more loose forwards on the bench, prop Harry Johnson-Holmes joined the fray to try and plug the gaps as best as he could. But the set-piece was now a clear and obvious target, and after the next lineout led to a try from Mataele that was only called back for a forward pass, the Crusaders attacked the scrum and went to the opposite flank for replacement Braydon Ennor to dive over.

Impressively, the Waratahs won a penalty from the next scrum, a celebration that was only dampened by Bernard Foley pulling his attempt wide of the uprights and missing the chance to arrest the decline.

And the shoe was quickly back on the other foot. The home side put successive shoves together near the Tahs’ line to test referee Ben O’Keeffe’s resolve, and when another was wheeled and felled a metre short, he’d seen enough to run under the posts, signal the penalty try, and put the Crusaders in front at 31-29.

A silly penalty for taking Beale out of the play – again – gave Foley the chance to regain the lead with just four minutes remaining. But the ball fell agonisingly wide of the posts, and the dream that had seemed so real after just half an hour of this game, had once more turned into a ghastly Canterbury tale.

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CRUSADERS 31 (Penalty Try, Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Seta Tamanivalu, Braydon Ennor tries; Richie Mo’unga 2 cons) defeated NSW WARATAHS 29 (Cam Clark, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Israel Folau, Curtis Rona tries; Bernard Foley 3 cons, pen)

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