NSW battled bravely against the Crusaders, but ultimately their 37-33 loss on Sunday means only one thing for their Super Rugby finals ambitions.
Next week’s derby clash with the Brumbies in Canberra is do or die.
The Waratahs gained a valuable bonus point from their efforts against the Robbie Fruean-inspired Crusaders, but sit five points behind their ACT rivals in the Australian Conference.
Despite being heavily undermanned, NSW were in the match until the final minute in front of an impressive Sydney crowd of 30,663.
But for everything positive they did with the ball, defensive combinations failed the Waratahs in their attempts to shut down the explosive Fruean, who proved the difference, scoring two tries and setting up another.
Coach Michael Foley said he won’t begin doing the maths on the table, but knows close enough won’t be good enough for the 4-5 Waratahs against the Brumbies.
“Next week’s a very important game and I was never any good at maths,” said Foley, who lamented his side giving up too much cheap possession to their powerhouse opponents.
“As a team we haven’t made any excuses about the injuries, we had nine guys sitting on the sideline this week (Sekope Kepu will also be assessed for a leg injury).
“We’re definitely disappointed but also pretty inspired by what the team put out there at times tonight.
“I thought there were a hell of a lot of positives in that, I’m certainly not disheartened.”
There was plenty to like about the Waratahs’ performance, particularly the way they continued to come back at the Crusaders every time it looked as though Fruean had delivered the knock-out blow.
Fruean was caught short in defence for Atieli Pakalani’s opening try, but from there the 23-year-old with an eye on an All Blacks debut never looked back.
His incredible mix of raw speed and power saw him streak away for the Crusaders first try in the 18th minute, and before halftime, he’d put the visitors in front thanks to a blistering run down the left, capped off by a last-ditch flick pass to Zac Guildford.
A Wycliff Palu try after halftime put the Waratahs in the lead at 20-17, but Fruean busted the game open again with 25 minutes left when he somehow found space up a nonexistent blind-side to bag his double and give the Crusaders a 34-23 advantage.
Some late brilliance from NSW replacement Sarel Pretorius kept the match alive but in a tight contest it was Fruean, sporting a ‘Mr T’ Mohawk hairstyle, who was the difference.
“We thought Firestone or Goodyear might be personally sponsoring him, but if that’s what it takes to keep him sharp he can keep the haircut all year,” said Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder.
“Explosive, dynamic, he’s certainly got something about him that boy hasn’t he? He’s exceptional.”
The Crusaders’ four-try win was their fifth victory from their past six starts and their 10th straight triumph over the Waratahs – however they still trail the Chiefs and Highlanders in the New Zealand conference.
Blackadder, who welcomed the return of All Blacks legend Richie McCaw from injury, said the Waratahs could still be a threat in the competition.
“I thought their set piece was excellent,” he said.
“So much can happen so quickly in Super Rugby and they’re a good side.”