THE lethal speed of Robbie Fruean brought the Waratahs' mid-season momentum screeching to a halt as the Crusaders continued their climb up the ladder with a four-point win in Sydney last night.
The Wellington-born centre scored a double for his highly fancied team in an explosive partnership with winger Zac Guildford that blew holes in weak Waratahs defence and gave the visitors a bonus point early in the second half.
It was a classic third-quarter drift from the home side, who went into the break one point behind their opponents, dominated at the line-out, contested valiantly, jagged the lion's share of turnovers but failed to convert crucial opportunities.
''We gave them possession at key times,'' a disappointed but positive coach Michael Foley said. ''Obviously on the restart a couple of times there we spilled the ball, but again it's difficult to be critical because they just contested very hard. They put guys in the air, the ball was loose on the ground - maybe we could have scrambled that a little bit better - but I think the contest [and the] accuracy of the kick made it very challenging.''
Strongman No.8 Wycliff Palu fuelled hopes of an upset with a beautifully opportunistic try off a rolling maul early in the second half but the Crusaders attack fired up again to put a win just out of reach.
Reserve halfback Sarel Pretorius gave the passionate, 30,000-strong home crowd some late hope with a try in the corner - converted by Berrick Barnes - with six minutes to go.
But it was too little too late for the Waratahs, who face a tough road to make the finals with their first game against the Brumbies and a tour to South Africa in the weeks ahead.
The Crusaders showed why they will never be written off as finals chances with excellent attack off the restart, an imposing scrum and ruthlessness with opportunities.
A second-half try to right wing Adam Whitelock added to Fruean and Guildford's first-half haul before Fruean, named man of the match, made it a double shortly after. Five-eighth Tom Taylor converted every opportunity to make his contribution to the Crusaders' 20-point pile-up early in the second half, when the Waratahs struggled in defence.
For a while it looked like Atieli Pakalani, who has played just three club matches all season, was the Waratahs' lucky charm. The replacement winger scored his debut try for the Waratahs in their round three loss to the Crusaders last year and scored against them first last night.
He was on the receiving end of a pass from Berrick Barnes to Adam Ashley-Cooper, who drifted beautifully to find space and deliver the ball to his winger in the 13th minute. It was a redemption of sorts for Pakalani, who had coughed up a pass from halfback Brendan McKibbin and killed a chance moments earlier.
Fruean struck a short time after Pakalani's try to even the score, and Guildford put the visitors two points in front with a try in the 35th minute. McKibbin's boot kept the Waratahs in the hunt when the Crusaders conceded penalties.
The Waratahs face a six-day turnaround before they take on the Brumbies, and again will be without centre Rob Horne and fullback Bernard Foley. Lachie Turner is expected to miss the rest of the season.