THE Canterbury Crusaders deserve some credit for keeping their quest for an eighth Super Rugby title alive until the final minute of the season according to their coach, former Edinburgh Rugby star Todd Blackadder.
The New Zealanders led the New South Wales Waratahs by two points with the end of the match in sight at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday before Bernard Foley’s long-range penalty snatched a 33-32 victory and a first title for the home side.
Former Edinburgh player and coach Blackadder captained the Crusaders to the first three of their seven Super Rugby titles from 1998 to 2000 but his search for his first as a coach is now destined to go into his seventh season in the job.
“You certainly prepare to win these things and coming second is not much fun, I can tell you that. This competition is all about winning,” he said.
“I think we’re disappointed but it’s not the end of the world. We had our opportunities, so while we’re disappointed that we didn’t take them we gave ourselves a good chance to win.
“We knew that if we kept the ball we could break down their defences and credit to our guys, they were in control until the last minute.”
Despite his clear disappointment, Blackadder was gracious enough to pay lavish compliments to the Waratahs, even if he was not certain they deserved the penalty that won them the game.
It came when the Waratahs were hammering away at the Crusaders defence and South African referee Craig Joubert penalised All Blacks captain Richie McCaw for coming into a ruck from the side.
“Fifty-fifty, I thought, could have gone either way, comes down to those moments, doesn’t it?” Blackadder said.
“There was nothing between those sides. I was really proud of the way our guys fought back. It comes down to those moments between winning the competition and not.”
Skipper Kieran Read could not conceal his disappointment that McCaw had gambled on trying to turn over the ball with the Crusaders in front and so little time left in the game.
“I was certainly backing our defence,” said the No 8. “We probably didn’t need to give away any penalties because we’re fit enough to defend it and it showed because they weren’t going anywhere.”
McCaw, who built his reputation as one of the greatest players of all time because of his ability to judge the fine line between legal and illegal play at the breakdown, admitted his own disappointment.
“I probably should have known better really,” he said. “Perhaps I opened the door for the ref to make a decision and whether you agree or disagree that’s the way it was. And, unfortunately, he kicked the goal. I’m pretty annoyed, but I can’t do much about it now. It’s one of those things you’ve just got to live with.”
Foley’s 79th-minute kick from range gave the Waratahs their first Super Rugby title but, for coach Michael Cheika, the triumph was built on getting all the little things right.
The victory capped the revolution Cheika has inspired in his two years back in Sydney, transforming an underachieving team coming off its worst season and regularly booed off the park by dwindling crowds into southern hemisphere champions. Manpower changes have played their part, as has a running style of rugby that has overwhelmed several opponents this year.
Most of all, however, it is Cheika’s emphasis on the detail that shows the character of the team.
“We’ve really hung in in situations where we’ve struggled this year,” the jubilant Sydneysider said. “Because of the way we play, you can really get into trouble if teams come hard at you.
“We lost our way a bit in the second half and we had to get ourselves back on track. But we really persisted. And that persistence in the small things is the really good character in the team.”