The NSW Waratahs have trounced the Highlanders 44-16 to secure the Super Rugby minor premiership for the first time.
Michael Cheika finally conceded NSW were in pole position to win an elusive first Super Rugby title after watching the Waratahs power relentlessly to their maiden minor premiership on Sunday.
But after playing down expectations for months, Cheika’s guarded admission typically came with a qualifier after the Waratahs routed the Highlanders 44-16 to rack up a club-record sixth consecutive Super win.
Victory earned the Waratahs a weekend off after Saturday night’s last-round derby against the Queensland Reds and then a home semi-final and a golden opportunity to secure hosting rights for the August 2 title match.
Twelve of the 18 Super Rugby champions also won the minor premiership, including 11 of the past 13.
“Top two – it’s pretty much proven that you’ve got a good advantage to win the competition if you finish there,” the Tahs coach said. “Finishing first is obviously an ideal situation.
“I wouldn’t say we’re in the box seat because most of those box seats have an eject button and, if you’re not ready for what’s to come in the finals, you get ejected straight out.”
With Cheika continuing to play down expectations, it was left to Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph to assess the Waratahs’ chance of finally delivering a title to long-suffering NSW fans after 18 years of waiting.
Asked to rate the quality of the Waratahs, Joseph said: “Crikey, we just got a hiding from them”.
“They’re a very good team. They’ve got a very good forward pack, their bench is strong.
“Every week they’re getting over the line with their forwards and the other fellas with numbers nine to 15 on their backs are relishing being in that environment.
“To beat the Waratahs, you have to stop that momentum up front. If you can do that, you can have a better shot.
“If you don’t, then the likes of (Israel) Folau and others are going to cut you to pieces.”
If NSW preserve their unbeaten home record in 2014 with success in the semi-final in a fortnight, they will host the final at ANZ Stadium.
Fittingly, superstar fullback Folau and playmaking five-eighth Bernard Foley were among the stars on Sunday as the Waratahs ran roughshod over their fourth-placed rivals.
With his side clinging to an 11-9 halftime lead, Folau, the competition’s leading tryscorer, gave the Tahs breathing space when he powered over for his 12th five-pointer of the season shortly after the break.
Foley, yet again named man of the match, earned his own slice of history as the Waratahs’ highest pointscorer in a single season when he slotted the conversion.
The Wallabies star’s 199 points – from five tries, 39 conversions and 32 penalty goals – eclipses Peter Hewat’s previous record set in 2006.
A 51st-minute try to prop Sekope Kepu had the Waratahs in command before halfback Nick Phipps clinched victory when he squeezed over in the corner with a quarter of an hour remaining.
Popular lock Jacques Potgieter and replacement winger Taqele Naiyaravoro iced the win with NSW’s fifth and sixth tries to earn the Waratahs a standing ovation from the rapturous crowd of almost 25,000 fans.