Sydney: The prayers of the New South Wales Waratahs were answered at the weekend as they credited the rugby gods for delivering their first Super Rugby crown after a tense final against the Canterbury Crusaders.
The nail-biting 33-32 victory at Sydney`s ANZ Stadium not only capped a stellar season for the Waratahs but was also hailed as setting a new standard for Australian rugby.
The showdown between the best of Australia and New Zealand in Super Rugby also heightened interest in the Rugby Championship, which will be opened by the Wallabies and All Blacks on the same ground in two weeks.
Richie McCaw, who will lead an All Blacks side dominated by Crusaders players against a Wallabies team filled with Waratahs, was the guilty party in the final penalty and sees the Test as a shot at redemption.
After 125 games, the 2014 Super 15 season was settled by one 45-metre kick, slotted a minute from fulltime in the final by Waratahs marksman Bernard Foley to secure victory by a one-point margin.
The kick was at the very edge of Foley`s range. "I had to give it everything, the rugby gods were smiling and it just snuck over," the fly-half said as the Waratahs celebrated.
It was not just the title the Waratahs celebrated, but also how their self-belief had ended an 11-match losing streak against the Crusaders dating back 10 years.
"I really believe in this team a lot. Many times over the last two seasons we`ve been able to dig ourselves out of a hole," said coach Michael Cheika. "Our persistence showed out in the end."After the Waratahs opening blitz in which they raced to a 14-0 lead before a record Super Rugby crowd of 61,823, there was nothing between the two sides, who showcased why they dominated the standings at the end of the regular season.
Behind them were beaten semi-finalists Coastal Sharks and ACT Brumbies, with the Sharks the only South African side to make the play-offs that also included New Zealand sides Waikato Chiefs and Otago Highlanders.
"The NSW Waratahs have raised the bar for the Australian conference and their success is a true testament to the quality of rugby they have produced this season," Australian Rugby Union chief executive Bill Pulver said.
He said it highlighted the improvement in Australian rugby which could only be beneficial ahead of the looming international series.
"Our five Super Rugby teams collectively won more matches this year than they ever have in Super Rugby with 40 wins this year compared to 37 in 2013 or 32 in 2012.
"Australian rugby now turns its focus towards the 2014 Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup."
The Crusaders, the most successful team in Super Rugby, were left dejected, unable to add to their seven titles, the last of which was in 2008.
"I`m pretty gutted really. Whether you agree or disagree that`s the way it was," McCaw said of the close-call penalty, while adding he knew there was a chance to beat the Wallabies on the same ground on August 16.
"It`s pretty hard to think about that now when you`re hurting with a bunch of mates who`ve done a fair bit together this year. But we`ll get into next week and there`s a silver lining that you get another crack back here."