Cheika joy as Waratahs belie 'soft underbelly' to make Super history
Former Leinster coach Michael Cheika hailed New South Wales Waratahs' fringe men after leading the Australian side to a maiden Super Rugby title.
The Waratahs stunned star-studded seven-times champions Canterbury Crusaders with a last-gasp penalty – conceded by All Black legend Richie McCaw – from Bernard Foley to snatch a 33-32 victory in a thrilling final in Sydney.
Australia internationals Adam Ashley-Cooper – who scored two tries – Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau were the inspiration behind the victory, but Cheika was quick to praise his lesser lights for creating a winning culture.
"Every player's positive energy throughout the year is a contributor to the team being successful," Cheika said. "One guy who says 'I'm not getting a run, this is rubbish' can poison everything.
"It's all about team, work ethic, everyone being on that same planet that says 'right, we're going this way, right we're going to have our hardship within that, but I'm also going to support my team-mates to the maximum to get to the end goal'."
Cheika denied that derogatory comments about his forwards from former All Black Craig Dowd had been a factor – the ex-prop, now a pundit, described the Waratahs pack as "the soft underbelly" of the team in the build-up.
"It didn't work out when I tried to say it was the Crusaders coach that said that," joked the man who guided Leinster to their first Heineken Cup in 2009. "The boys saw the article so I didn't get away with that motivational tool."
Cheika even conceded that Dowd's comments were "warranted, probably".
"I think there's a perception that we are a little soft," he said. "And it's only up to us to show that we are coming up and we want to try to earn respect of all our competitors. I wouldn't say it was a motivational tool. We know it's out there and it's up to us to rectify that.
"Once we've done it for a few more years – of being solid, aggressive, at the ball – then you've done it. Not tonight."
The Waratahs – with Leinster-bound second-row Kane Douglas playing the full 80 minutes – surged into a 14-0 lead inside 15 minutes thanks to Ashley-Cooper's try and three penalties from Foley, who finished with 23 points.
The Crusaders finally got into the game when Matt Todd crossed after a pass from reigning world Player of the Year Kieran Read.
Dan Carter, starting at inside-centre following his recent return from a six-month sabbatical, converted but an ankle injury soon forced him to hand over the kicking duties to out-half Colin Slade; Carter limped off on the half-hour.
Slade and Foley traded penalties to leave the score 20-13 to the Australians at the interval.
A controversial converted try from centre Nemani Nadolo brought the New Zealanders level, and Slade then put them ahead for the first time with a penalty.
After Ashley-Cooper's try put the Waratahs back in front, Slade restored the Crusaders' lead with four minutes to go.
They looked sure to hang on for an eighth title but McCaw was penalised for going in at the side of a ruck 40 metres out and Foley slotted the kick. The Crusaders were unable to reclaim the restart, and the Waratahs had made history.
McCaw blamed himself, saying: "I'm pretty gutted. I probably should have known better really.
"I guess that's what pressure and those sort of moments come down to, being able to back your decision, and perhaps I opened the door for the ref to make a decision. I'm pretty annoyed. It's one of those things you've just got to live with."
The Crusaders are still by far the most successful side in Super Rugby history, but since winning the title in 2008, Todd Blackadder's men have fallen in the 2011 decider to the Queensland Reds, to the Waratahs now and in four semi-finals.
Coach Blackadder lamented the loss of Carter – whose injury is not thought to be serious – saying: "It wasn't great losing Dan so early."