Super Rugby Pacific: Crusaders fall to heartbreaking 'Golden Point' defeat against NSW Waratahs at Sydney

After 14 lead changes, the Crusaders have fallen to a devastating 43-40 extra-time defeat to NSW Waratahs at Sydney, continuing their horror season in defence of the Super Rugby Pacific crown.

With seconds remaining, replacement loose forward Christian Lio-Willie scored from the back of a five-metre scrum to put the visitors ahead seemingly for good, but the Waratahs had enough time to conjure up another attack that saw them draw level with a penalty to force 'Golden Point'.

In added time, they stole a defensive lineout throw from the Crusaders and after several phases in front of the posts, replacement first-five Will Harrison slotted the winning drop goal to give the home side their second win over the titleholders this season.

Will Harison celebrates his winning drop goal against the Crusaders.
Will Harison celebrates his winning drop goal against the Crusaders. Photo credit: Getty Images

"It hurts," admitted Crusaders captain Tom Christie. "The feeling out there is what anyone at home would expect - it hurts.

"We did a lot of good things, but we left the door open too many times and the 'Tahs are a quality football team."

The Crusaders wasted no time stamping some authority from the opening kickoff, with winger Sevu Reece scoring in the corner inside the first minute.

The early blow did not bury the home side, which stole their restart and went straight onto attack, with winger Dylan Pietsch slicing through the defence and laying on a short pass for flanker Lachie Swinton to score.

One of their best performers through their early-season struggles, Reece did not need much longer to equal the Crusaders tryscoring record of 52, bumping off fullback Max Jorgenson to cross out wide and match former All Black Caleb Ralph.

A pair of penalties from first-five Taine Edmed put the Waratahs back in front, but they could not contain Reece, who made the initial break and handled again in the build-up to a try by second-five Dallas McLeod.

The Crusaders' ill-discipline was punished, when a series of penalties inside their 22 resulted in a lineout drive and try to Waratahs lock Ned Hanigan.

First-five Riley Hohepa took the lead back with a penalty, but Edmed responded in kind. The Waratahs had a chance to extend their margin, but flanker Charlie Gamble was held up over the line after the halftime siren.

After eight lead changes, NSW enjoyed a 23-22 edge at the break and almost went further ahead, when Jorgenson gathered an awkwardly bouncing ball down the left touch, but was run down and dispossessed by - guess who - Sevu Reece.

The Crusaders sacked an attacking lineout maul to thwart another scoring opportunity and Hohepa slotted another penalty from in front to reclaim the lead.

They seemed to extend their advantage, when Hohepa chipped ahead, winger Johnny McNicholl gathered and sent centre Levi Aumua away, but the last, off-balance pass was clearly forward.

Crusaders coach Rob Penney threw his bench into the fray at about 55 minutes, replacing the entire front row, and injecting halfback Mitch Drummond and first-five Rivez Reihana to take control.  

Reihana slotted a penalty to settle the nerves, but Pietsch levelled the scores with a try, after a run from second-five Lalakai Foketi, and Harrison's conversion had the hosts ahead again.

Lio-Willie fell centimetres short of the tryline, but Drummond dived over in the corner for the 10th lead change. The Waratahs weren't done and hooker Julian Heaven finished off a counterattack to put them up with 10 minutes remaining.

The Crusaders squandered a prime opportunity to strike back, when Reihana knocked on inside the Waratahs 22.  

Sevu Reece in action against the Waratahs.
Sevu Reece in action against the Waratahs. Photo credit: Getty Images

Reece was tackled in the corner, but his infield pass was taken back over the line for a five-metre scrum and Lio-Willie went across from the back.  

Reihana converted from the sideline, but from the kickoff, the Waratahs regained possession and McNicholl was yellow-carded for an intentional knockon.

Harrison slotted the penalty from 40 metres to force 'Golden Point', before setting up and delivering the winning blow in extra-time. He kicked to touch on the Crusaders 22, but the champions' lineout - an Achilles heel throughout their disappointing campaign - malfunctioned again to turn over the ball.

After a few attacking phases, Harrison made no mistake with his left-footed kick to seal victory.

The Crusaders seemed to have turned their season around by toppling the Chiefs for their first win before the bye week, but now fall 1-6, with their playoff hopes fading.

"We'll take what we need to out of that game, leave behind what we don't and we'll evolve as a team," said Christie. "We've been in this position already this year, we've learned... we've just got to keep going, keep pushing.

"There's elements, we've just got to put it together for the complete package."

They travel across Australia to face Western Force next Saturday.

NSW Waratahs 43 (Swinton, Hanigan, Pietsch, Heaven tries; Edmed 2 conversions & 3 penalties, Harrison 2 conversions, penalty & drop goal) Crusaders 40 (Reece 2, McLeod, Drummond, Lio-Willie tries; Hohepa 2 conversions & 2 penalties, Reihana penalty & conversion)