NSW Waratahs climbed to the top of Super Rugby’s Australian conference and possibly ended the Crusaders 13-year finals run with a 32-22 home win in a brutal and exciting clash at ANZ Stadium.
The Waratahs led 25-8 early in the second half, but the Crusaders piled on 14 unanswered points to get within three with fewer than 15 minutes to go.
Waratahs five-eighth Bernard Foley clinched the bonus-point win two minutes from the end when he scored their fourth try after chasing through his won kick and slid over the line, after Crusaders winger Nafi Tuitavake couldn’t handle the ball.
The Crusaders, who started the round in ninth spot, played out the last 10 minutes with 14 men after champion flanker Richie McCaw was sin-binned for entering a ruck from the side.
The Waratahs also played with 14 men for 10 minutes when hooker Tolu Latu was sin-binned for a lifting tackle on Sam Whitelock.
Winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, who scored two tries, and lock Will Skelton, each sailed close to the wind with some shoulder charge tackles in an intensely physical encounter.
Skelton and Foley were among the Waratahs best as they collected the points which lifted them above the Brumbies in a thrilling encounter against the Crusaders, which was almost as dramatic as last year’s final at the same venue between the two teams.
The Crusaders crossed inside the first two minutes when Nemani Nadolo rounded off a multi-phase move after opposing winger Naiyaravoro spilt the kick-off.
Naiyaravoro made amends within six minutes, crossing after a move in which fullback Israel Folau made the initial break and then the final pass.
Foley converted to give the Tahs a 7-5 lead, but a penalty from Dan Carter nudged the Crusaders ahead by a point.
The Waratahs lifted while Latu was off, outscoring the Crusaders 10-0 with Foley kicking a penalty and converting a breakaway try to winger Rob Horne, who scooted away after five-eighth Colin Slade dropped a Carter pass close to halfway.
Adding to Slade’s misery, he limped off 10 minutes later with what appeared to be a knee problem, with Carter switching to five-eighth.
Despite being a man down for 10 minutes and having markedly less possession in the first half, NSW created more scoring opportunities with Foley having a try scrubbed for a knock on in the leadup and Folau losing the ball forwards close to the Crusaders line.
The Waratahs defended with great tenacity, but the Crusaders lateral attack often played into their hands.
NSW swelled their lead to 17 points, with a Foley penalty and Naiyaravoro’s second try, which followed a big run from Sekope Kepu and another Folau pass.
Foley missed the conversion and another penalty and the Crusaders set up a grandstand finish with their final quarter surge.
McCaw crossed after Nadolo got the ball to him close to the line and replacement back-rower Matt Todd crashed over from a rolling maul, with Carter converting both five-pointers.