When Leichhardt rocked for rugby: Emotional Waratahs look finals bound

The Waratahs might want to cancel that order for a shiny new stadium at Moore Park.

They'll at least want to bottle the atmosphere that engulfed Leichhardt Oval on Saturday night as a 10,000-strong crowd helped will them to an upset 24-21 victory over Super Rugby Pacific heavyweights the Crusaders.

With the crowd still piling in after kick-off and the sun setting in the distance, the occasion had a touch of something special about it from the outset.

And the Waratahs delivered in kind, turning in their best performance of the season to stun the mighty Crusaders and prove that they are indeed worthy of finals football just a season after they went completely winless.

"We've cancelled our games at the footy stadium next year, we're going to stay here," Waratahs coach Darren Coleman quipped. "It was cool, even in the warm-up, just watching the crowd; I talk to these boys about it regularly, when people are lined up to come and watch you, it's a good feeling.

"And when you can send them home [happy], it's a pretty powerful thing. I've coached a while but never been at this big of an organisation. I've sent supporters home happy and sad for 20-odd years, but never this many.

"You feel pretty f------ good."

While the Crusaders had been poor in the first half of their win over the Rebels in Super Round, they eventually found their groove after halftime to run in 40 points and finish comfortable 47-17 winners last week.

And it was clear from the outset in Sydney on Saturday night that the Crusaders had again missed the jump, on a night when star fly-half Richie Mo'unga and fellow All Blacks Braydon Ennor and Ethan Blackadder were all fulfilling All Blacks rest weeks.

And the Waratahs, for the first half anyway, were brilliant.

From the moment Tane Edmed carted the ball forward from a scrum, evoking memories of his old man Steve's exploits in rugby league, this looked like the Waratahs' night. The next phase, winger Dylan Pietsch tore onto a flat ball on a similarly route-one line, busted through a woeful tackle attempt from Bryn Hall and raced away to score under the sticks after just two minutes.

It was the perfect start but there was better still to come.

With pressure building on the Crusaders' line, NSW were given a penalty by referee Ben O'Keefe. Thinking the mark was in front of the sticks, Waratahs captain Jake Gordon signaled for the shot at goal. But when he was told the position was back out by the 15-metre line, the Waratahs instead kicked to touch.

While the Crusaders were first able to repel the Waratahs' maul, the play soon shifted back to the short side. With a little bit of footwork, centre Izaia Perese poked his neck between two defenders and flicked an offload out to Mark Nawaqanitawase who went in untouched.

Edmed's touchline conversion made it 14-0 after 12 minutes and the Waratahs were on their way.

Pietsch again threatened midway through the first half with a breakout from inside his own half, the winger showing all his sevens skills with a neat chip ahead that the Crusaders only just cleaned up.

Meanwhile nothing was going right for the visitors. While they were helped significantly by multiple scrum penalties, the visitors were simply unable to get anything going on the attack while their rolling maul was twice shut down from close range. Even the brilliant Will Jordan couldn't get anything going.

After a penalty later in the half from Edmed, the Waratahs went to the sheds to the sounds of a standing ovation and up 17-0.

But the second half was to be a completely different story, and it began in terrible style for the Waratahs when Pietsch dropped the kick-off cold. While Crusaders captain David Havili shelled the ball shortly after, the sequence was to set the tone for what was to come.

The Crusaders' sustained pressure eventually told seven minutes into the second half when they were awarded a penalty try, with the Waratahs ruled to have brought down a rolling maul, a move that also saw Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco sin-binned.

The 10,293-strong crowd -- the best Waratahs figure for since 2019 -- could feel the momentum shifting and when Sione Havili Talitui rumbled his way over from close range just after Warren-Vosayaco had returned to the field, the Crusaders' comeback was on.

But there was more drama to come, and even greater energy from the parochial Waratahs crowd, who jeered when Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper was whacked in a terrible tackle by Crusaders replacement Hamish Dalzell.

Given Dazell had only a few minutes earlier been cleared of another dangerous tackle, and the home side had been on the wrong end of what was eventually a 16-9 penalty count, the Waratahs faithful were livid.

This time, however, there would be no escape for Dalzell, with replays clearly showing he had collected Hooper straight in the head and with no mitigation, the towering Crusaders forward was given a red card.

From there, the Waratahs kicked to the corner and launched a rolling maul of their own. And as had been the result for the Crusaders, the home side was awarded a penalty try when the maul was brought down illegally, with Pablo Matera also sent to the sin bin.

But the Crusaders weren't done either. Down to 13 men, they still managed to open the Waratahs up and ensured it was a nervy finish for the home crowd when Fletcher Newell scored with six minutes to play.

The visitors then had one final foray down the left-hand touchline, but NSW were able to scramble with man-of-the-match Charlie Gamble earning the decisive penalty that wrapped up an enthralling three-point win.

Ultimately, the Crusaders would regret their slow start, while they still appear to be searching for that renowned skill and quality of execution that has been the hallmark of their game across Robertson's tenure.

"It's a good question, we're looking for the answer ourselves," Robertson said when asked why the Crusaders still weren't at their best.

"We had a really good week...connected, good mindset. We know playing Aussie teams is a little bit different, we know how desperate they are; they're a dogged side, the Waratahs.

"They put us under the pressure cycle that we just couldn't quite get out of, and then just hung on there. How do we get better? We're gonna look at our honesty, look at our weeks, have a good look at everything really, because it's all there but we've just got to complete some stuff."

With the crowd on its feet, Waratahs fly-half Edmed broke down in an interview with Stan Sport.

On the same field where his father Steve had enjoyed such a storied career in rugby league, Edmed was overcome by the emotion of playing in front of friends and family, but also having trodden the depths of what was a brutal and winless 2021 Waratahs season.

"He's a big sook, Tane, isn't he," Coleman quipped again post match. "But we were all fighting them back. You just don't know when the emotional victories are going to come.

"And that euphoria that you get straight after a final whistle in a game that you're not sure you're going to win or not, and you've worked bloody hard to win it, you should show emotion.

"And Tane, as I said was a big sook, but everyone was feeling it, everyone was happy. There was a lot of emotion because we've had some wins obviously this year and we've got some credibility back, but to knock off a top Kiwi team was awesome."

With Moana Pasifika to come in Auckland next week, the Waratahs have a great opportunity to put back-to-back wins together.

Do that, and the crowd might be even bigger for the visit of the Hurricanes in a fortnight's time.

And you can guarantee Leichhardt Oval will be rocking once more.