SYDNEY (AFP) – The Canterbury Crusaders’ 19-game win streak was brought to a halt Saturday by the NSW Waratahs, with star Wallabies fullback Israel Folau equalling the all-time Super Rugby try record.
Defeat culminated a traumatic week for a team left reeling by the Christchurch mosque massacres.
Based in the New Zealand town where a white supremacist killed 50 people a week ago, the Crusaders were playing their first game since the tragedy.
But the reigning champions were unable to get the win they desperately wanted, crashing 20-12 in a scrappy match on a wet night at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Folau wrote himself into the record books with a 59th touchdown, matching the mark held by Doug Howlett during his stints at the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Blues between 1997-2007.
“I’m very proud. We’re building wins off defence and really happy that we were able to get tries then create a good wall to stop these guys,” said Waratahs skipper Michael Hooper. “Another really good performance.”
In a show of solidarity, both teams ran onto the field at the same time before linking arms in a minute’s silence to commemorate those who died in the mass shooting that stunned rugby-mad New Zealand.
The Crusaders, who wore armbands with the words ‘United 15-03-2019’, marking the day of the tragedy, cancelled their match last week against the Highlanders so the players could return home.
“Full credit to these guys (Waratahs), they came out early and put pressure on us and we were chasing the game straight away,” said Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock.
Asked if he had a message for Christchurch, he replied, “Obviously it hasn’t been a great week but we stayed pretty tight. That’s what we’re trying to do as a team and we’re doing it as a city too.”
Many of the players admitted the shootings hit them hard and the Crusaders’ focus was lacking as Jed Holloway powered through two tackles to dive between the posts after just three minutes.
The Waratahs got another try eight minutes later when Folau won a ball in the air and offloaded to Cameron Clark who scorched down the line.
Stunned, the Crusaders, minus the experienced Owen Franks and Kieran Reid, woke up and pulled one back when George Bridge sliced through the defence after a line-out win.
But a Bernard Foley penalty saw the home team head to the break with a 15-7 lead and on a greasy pitch, the Crusaders couldn’t find a way back.
The Tahs dominated in the second stanza with Folau’s late touchdown putting the game beyond reach. Will Jordan pulled one back for the Crusaders on the siren, but it was too late.
Earlier, a late try and conversion from Beauden Barrett saw the Hurricanes end the Stormers’ three-game win streak 34-28 in Wellington.
The two teams also linked arms during a moment’s silence ahead of a see-sawing eight-try game.
“They put a lot of pressure on us, so we have to take our hats off to that,” said skipper Barrett. “We did well to slow them down and put them under pressure.”
South Africa’s Stormers came into the match with plenty of confidence, but playing in New Zealand is a tough assignment and they failed to make the most of their opportunities.