The NSW Waratahs have outclassed the Brumbies 26-8 in a tense Super Rugby derby to set up a blockbuster final with the Crusaders.
Almost 40,000 fans packed into Allianz Stadium to see the Waratahs grimly defend their fortress and convert their only three try-scoring opportunities to earn a first title decider in Sydney.
After losing their only two previous finals to the Crusaders, the seven-time champions once again stand in the Waratahs’ way of an elusive maiden championship after thumping Jake White’s Sharks 38-6 in Saturday’s first semi in Christchurch.
But unlike 2005 and 2008, the Waratahs will host the decider at ANZ Stadium next Saturday night after the minor premiers extended their club-record winning streak to eight matches with a spirited victory over the Brumbies.
With pedantic South African referee Jaco Peyper taking firm control, the Brumbies, with their superior set piece, relished the dour, Test match-style of game.
Even after falling behind 16-8 early in the second half, the Brumbies dominated possession and territory and threatened throughout the final quarter to end the Waratahs’ season of hope.
But with inspirational captain Michael Hooper, powerhouse lock Jacques Potgieter and halfback Nick Phipps outstanding, the Waratahs hung on, with five-eighth Bernard Foley clinching the win with a late penalty goal and converted try.
Despite the end scoreline, the Waratahs had to pull out all stops in a tense second half, with Phipps’ desperate try-savers on Brumbies pair Tevita Kuridrani and Scott Fardy telling.
The Brumbies’ defeat was their first playoff loss to Australian opposition and left the ACT outfit one win short of matching their run to last year’s final.
Contesting their first semi-final in four years, the Waratahs made a dream start with winger Alofa Alofa swooping on a wayward pass from Brumbies halfback Nic White and racing 60 metres to score in just the third minute.
Foley missed the conversion attempt but the Waratahs continued to dominate the early exchanges, and he increased their lead to 8-0 with a 22nd-minute penalty.
On the back foot, the Brumbies used their powerful scrum to gain a foothold in the match, with Peyper pinging the NSW scrum three times and also awarding the visitors a couple of other bewildering penalties.
After laying siege to the NSW tryline, they cashed in on the half-hour mark when five-eighth Matt Toomua put winger Henry Speight over in the corner.
It seemed the two sides would go to halftime locked up at 8-8 after Christian Lealiifano slotted a penalty goal a minute before the break, but Foley replied after the re-start to keep the Waratahs three points ahead.
The Tahs pushed out to 16-8 in the 47th minute when Kurtley Beale dispossessed Jesse Mogg, prompting Brumbies coaches Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher to hook the fullback.
It was all over when Foley, to the roars of the rapturous crowd, dived over after accepting a beautiful one-arm short pass from cult hero Will Skelton five minutes from fulltime.
“We talked before the game about how we had to take our opportunities,” Hooper said.
“Defence wins you games and it was really good tonight.”
The Waratahs haven’t beaten the Crusaders since 2004 and have lost their past 11 encounters with the champion New Zealand team.
“As a team, you want to beat the best,” Hooper said.
“We haven’t played the Crusaders this year and, if we knock them off, we’ll deserve to lift the trophy.”