The New South Wales Waratahs will play the Canterbury Crusaders in the Super Rugby final after an epic 26-8 win over the ACT Brumbies in Sydney on Saturday.
The Waratahs, who finished the regular season seven points clear at the top, needed an immense defensive effort to hold out the Brumbies in a torrid Australian derby before clinching victory with a brilliant team try in the final minutes.
The Waratahs will now take on the seven-time champion Crusaders in Sydney in next week’s final after the Kiwis beat South Africa’s Coastal Sharks 38-6 in the other semi-final in Christchurch.
The Sydneysiders will be playing in their third Super Rugby final after losing to the Crusaders in the 2005 and 2008 title deciders.
While the Waratahs outscored the Brumbies three tries to one it was their unstinting defence which won them the titanic game after keeping the two-time winners scoreless in the second half.
The Brumbies were camped on their try-line for long periods in the second half, trailing 16-8 before the Waratahs clinched victory with a try to fly-half Bernard Foley four minutes from time.
Israel Folau and Rob Horne combined before giant lock Will Skelton swatted away two tackles to send Foley racing away to score the determining try.
“We’ve talked about taking opportunities but we had to make them tonight and we came up with some tries that we built under pressure and we take that,” Waratahs skipper Michael Hooper said.
“They’re a tough outfit but we’re in the final and I’m stoked.”
The Waratahs scored their first two tries against the run of play.
Winger Alofa Alofa latched on to a loose pass from Wallaby scrum-half Nic White and sprinted 60 metres (200 feet) to score in the third minute.
The Waratahs got another big break when Wallaby back Kurtley Beale ripped the ball out of isolated Brumbies fullback Jesse Mogg to score seven minutes after the resumption.
Mogg was hauled off uninjured by coach Stephen Larkham moments later.
– ‘Best defensive side for a reason’ –
The Waratahs were unable to get any fluency into their attack as the Brumbies dominated possession and territory off set-pieces and had the home side under constant pressure before the 38,800-strong crowd.
Yet it was the Waratahs stout-hearted defence which ultimately broke the hearts of the Brumbies and turned the tide in the final minutes of a fierce derby.
“We had more than enough opportunities inside their quarter to come away with a lot of points but you have to give credit to the way the NSW guys held on,” said skipper Ben Mowen, who was playing his last game for the Brumbies before heading off to France to play with Montpellier.
“They defended really well, they dismantled our maul which has been a real strength of ours and they’re obviously the best defensive side in the competition for a reason.”
Winger Henry Speight scored the Brumbies’ only try nine minutes before half-time but was forced off the field with a right hamstring injury early in the second half.
Foley finished with 16 points from a try, three penalties and a conversion.