We are all Waratahs, now
August 4, 2014
Winners are grinners: Michael Hooper and the Waratahs have won a place in Sydney's sporting heart © Getty Images
This was the 'I was there' moment that thousands of wounded Waratahs followers have been waiting years to experience. And what a spectacular 'I was there' for all those who went to Homebush in the hope of redemption, as they were rewarded by witnessing New South Wales rugby's greatest triumph. For all those at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night, it will be an occasion that thrives forever in their memory. Everything about it was unique.
The history of the Waratahs is flawed, involving many stumbles, but also it has numerous glowing moments, including a groundbreaking nine-month Northern Hemisphere tour in 1927-1928, when Johnnie Wallace, Cyril Towers, Alec Ross and co showed how rugby should be played; epic triumphs over international teams, in particular the illustrious 1937 Springboks; and the unbeaten success of their mighty 1991 line-up. But one can confidently argue that the Waratahs' efforts this season matches, or even surpasses, anything New South Wales has achieved since it first fielded a team to play Queensland in 1882.
The Waratahs for the past five months have constantly overwhelmed the southern hemisphere's best provinces and players, and they finished off thei campaign with the ultimate finals performance that revolved around bloody-minded self-belief.
Finals opponents don't come any tougher than the Crusaders, especially when their team includes three New Zealand rugby icons so attuned to success - Richie McCaw, Daniel Carter and Kieran Read. So to defeat the Crusaders for the first time in a decade, in the final seconds of a pressure-soaked encounter, required the most special of efforts.
As crucially, the Waratahs played the final as in every other game this season - with panache. They persisted with their belief that it was just pain dumb to be negative, taking risks and sticking to their plan that the running game is the winning game. At a time when the code was looking shaky, the Waratahs have done Australian rugby an enormous service.
And so the crowds are bound to come back, with the fans in the traditional areas of support in the Eastern Suburbs and the North Shore of Sydney even be prepared to head west once again.
ESPN spared no expense in covering this final, and so we were part of the Tah Train journey to the ground.
The train, put on for Waratahs supporters, wove its way through the North Shore heartland, before tracking towards Homebush. The carriages had been decorated with Waratahs paraphernalia, but it took some time for the atmosphere to build. Repeated calls on the train loudspeaker for Tahs chants met only muted replies; it was as if the Waratahs supporters were a bit scared to admit their allegiance, and that they were even on a dare to wear the team colours. Understandable really, considering the endless ardour they have suffered during 19 seasons of Super Rugby - especially at the hands of the Crusaders, who had beaten them 11 games straight since 2004, including two grand finals.
Humour was required - and that came when the team mascot, Tah Man, boarded the train at Central Station. He soon commandeered the microphone, revved everyone up, took over the driver's seat, and the train charged into Homebush with a thousand or so Waratahs fans now chanting and cheering, suddenly believing this was going to be their night.
Then into a ground where they were surrounded by those with similar hopes. Now everyone was proud to be a Tah.
The concern was that the move to Homebush would have encouraged thousands of Crusaders supporters to fill the terraces, and nullify the Waratahs' home advantage. But, no, this was the night when the Waratahs discovered they had regained their core support, with 90-95% of the 61,823-strong crowd on their side. Here and there were a few Crusaders followers, but the ground had become a NSW cauldron.
When the Waratahs ran on, the wall of sound hit them. You could see them lift. So they wanted to perform. And perform they did.
Michael Cheika hails Tahs' team ethic%]
Every Waratahs player contributed. Adam Ashley-Cooper seized the moment, scoring the required tries. Bernard Foley handled every tense moment with aplomb. Nick Phipps produced the tackles of his life to end the final Crusaders charge. Michael Hooper, who during the half-time break was pacing around the dressing room like a caged cougar, made the right decisions and the required midfield charges. Wycliff Palu pounded. Jacques Potgieter, Stephen Hoiles, Kane Douglas, Benn Robinson, Kurtley Beale pounced.
And when you observed their injured captain, Dave Dennis, in tears embracing teammates after full-time, you could see that all this really meant something. Dennis and Hooper together lifting the winner's trophy brought tears to others.
This moment now must not be wasted. Rugby after a lengthy slump has again considerable momentum in its largest Australian city. With a Bledisloe Cup Test at the same venue in two weeks' time, it is time for Australian rugby to really march on.
The New South Wales Waratahs celebrate breaking their title drought © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
From Burgess to Boudjellal, Haskell to Honey Badgers and retirees to Retallick, here's the Quotes of 2014
It was another bumper year of rugby action in 2014; join us as we take a look back at some of the season's top statistics
Salary caps, Saints, sinners and scrums - Monday Maul looks back at the key talking points from an eventful weekend