The message was simple. Believe. Commit.
But the Waratahs were oblivious to the final rallying call emblazoned on the tunnel as they took to the field for what would be a thrilling Super Rugby final showdown with the Crusaders.
The intensely focused hosts had no need for a reminder of how to get the job done having set the standard throughout the campaign. With such form came pressure and expectation, could they capture their first title?
But at no stage did they lack self-belief or take a backward step having been well-drilled but also given the freedom to express themselves and they were rewarded with a famous 33-32 triumph.
Take a bow head coach Michael Cheika.
The Tahs were not the only ones to make history in Sydney with Cheika now the first coach to have captured the most-prized domestic titles in both the southern and northern hemispheres having previously steered Irish province Leinster to Heineken Cup glory in 2009.
Cheika’s coaching stock is set to rise yet further and deservedly so. He joined the Waratahs in 2012 and inherited a side coming off it’s worst ever Super Rugby season that had seen them slump to a 12 demoralising defeats and hemorrhage supporters and respect in equal measure.
A renowned disciplinarian, he immediately set about conjuring a reversal in fortune centered on a “loud and clear” identity that would leave nobody inside or outside the team unclear about what was expected and which would earn back the respect of “our team-mates, our supporters and our competitors.”
Progress was clear last season as the chronic underachievers steadied the ship but they would kick on again and then some this year. A breath-taking and crowd-pleasing brand of attacking rugby built on a rock solid defence soon had the turnstiles spinning again with a record final crowd of 61,823 flocking to the title-decider in the hope of witnessing one more special performance.
Despite the alarming fact that they had not beaten the Crusaders for 10 years, the fans fed on the belief shown by their team and they had good reason to expect an end to that drought.
No team scored more tries than the Tahs this season – with the dancing feet of Izzy Folau leading the way – and none of their rivals conceded less than them. The stats also reveal that they made the most metres and also created the most clean breaks and conjured the most offloads per game.
Those same supporters would go on to play a key role in proceedings with crowd noise not only fuelling the Waratahs’ blistering start but also drowning out lineout calls and playing havoc with the Crusaders’ attempts to get a foothold in the game.
A relaxed Cheika appeared unfazed by the significance of the occasion prior to the game and joked with reporters, seemingly determined to enjoy the experience and treat it like any other game. But that facade fell away in the moments following the final whistle when the tears flowed at the realisation that his side had survived a classic Crusaders comeback and he had brought a much-needed title to his home city.
As pivotal as Cheika’s coaching and man-management skills, he would no doubt be quick to acknowledge the contribution of those around him. The input and inside knowledge of assistant coach and former Crusaders stalwart Daryl Gibson would have surely been vital in the battle to deny their Kiwi rivals an eighth Super Rugby crown.
In addition, the influence of another former Canterbury favourite and kicking consultant Andrew Mehrtens was also evident in the form of Tahs fly-half Bernard Foley who topped the competition scoring charts and landed 23 points in the final including the match-winning penalty in the closing moments.
But neither can really claim to have rivalled the impact of assistant coach Nathan Grey who was the man behind the defensive steel that shackled and blunted all of their title rivals, most memorably in their semi-final success against the Brumbies.
Inspiration also came from within with veteran centre Adam Ashley-Cooper moved to write an epic poem on the occasion of his first major final. Delivered following their final training session of the season, Ashley-Cooper reportedly captivated his team-mates for 20 minutes with an ode to unity that highlighted the contribution of each player.
The exact content remains private but not its impact. “It sent shivers down my spine, pretty emotional stuff,” said prop Sekope Kepu. Ashley-Cooper himself was also clearly moved as he went to produce a vintage display and bag two crucial tries.
But make no mistake, this victory is Cheika’s handiwork. The coaches, his players and the supporters were following his lead. He set the tone on taking charge and subsequent reports have revealed he has constantly pushed his players in pursuit of success.
Motivational tools are nothing new in rugby but Cheika adopted an unconventional approach that may have others soon copying. Veteran Wycliff Palu revealed to the Daily Telegraph that he had to walk to the team’s Moore Park training base to ensure he didn’t become complacent while others were given their own specific tasks designed to focus their minds be it building some decking or concentrating on their studies.
Many would also reveal hitherto untold sides of their character in ‘honesty’ sessions that would surprise some long-term team-mates and forge even stronger bonds between players who thought they knew each other well.
The newspaper also details the small trophies handed out when the team had bettered the Brumbies in terms of physicality, a hammer, and the Chiefs when it came to energy and industry, a cow bell. Then there were the golf clubs that Cheika purchased and personalised for each player having taken inspiration from some analysis of Tiger Woods’ power and precision in his prime.
It is not textbook stuff but going by the results, perhaps it should be? Believe. Commit.
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