The Waratahs produced their best performance of the competition to beat the Hurricanes 32-16 and book their spot in the play-offs.
The Tahs took to the field in a jersey that probably matches the wallpaper in Phil Waugh’s bathroom. Perhaps the jersey designers felt not enough people knew exactly what a Waratah was, or perhaps the coaches wanted to distract the Canes with a design so bad it put Stade Francais’ atrocity to shame.
The official line is that the Tahs donned the strip for charity, and they seemed to thrive in the new colours, hammering the Canes up front and scoring some spectacular tries thanks to their sublime support play. The wet conditions should have prescribed a tighter approach, but the Tahs’ tendency to look for the offload had the Canes’ defence scrambling.
The hosts went into this crucial match without their star scrummager, Benn Robinson, and were dealt a further blow when Dan Palmer cried off with injury in the 11th minute. Unfortunately for the Canes, they also lost captain Andrew Hore early on, a loss that seemed to have a greater impact on their scrumming prowess.
The Tahs bossed this set-piece and piled on the pressure through a relentless forward assault on the Canes’ line. The Kiwis were able to withstand the forward barrage and even managed to snaffle a couple of timely turnovers on their own line. But it was when the Tahs ran it from deep that the visitors struggled to get back on defence.
Great offloading complemented penetrative supporting lines until Kurtley Beale received the final pass to dot down. Lachie Turner then created something from nothing, chipping behind the Canes’ defence, collecting the ball, and sprinting upfield. The pass at pace was accurate as Drew Mitchell took the score to 18-6.
Piri Weepu managed to goal a penalty before the break, but the Tahs struck decisively after half-time. Having absorbed plenty of punishment in the first stanza, the Canes defence was lethargic and allowed Mitchell to cut the line. The Wallabies winger found Rob Horne in support and was on hand when the Tahs centre delivered the final offload.
The try and subsequent conversion took the Tahs to a 25-9 lead, and the way the hosts were firing, a Canes fightback seemed unlikely. The hosts had the better of possession and were winning the collisions, a battle that was made easier thanks to the tiring Canes defence.
Another chip over the top eluded a seemingly well-placed Cory Jane as Beale collected his own kick to score. The bounce of the ball was favouring the Aussies, and the try ensured they claimed a bonus point.
The Canes played themselves into the Tahs’ 22, but their desperation was exacerbated by elementary handling errors. Jane knocked the ball over the tryline, and while you could say that the slippery conditions were responsible, the Tahs were getting all their passes away despite the wet.
Turner was sin-binned in the 67th minute but the Canes failed to make the most of their numbers advantage. They spilled a pass from the resulting penalty and then butchered another opportunity when they ran it from deep. The Tahs defended spiritedly, but eventually conceded a try to David Smith.
The Sydney side has played some uninspiring rugby to date, but this performance confirmed why many teams consider them a threat. Their pack is difficult to stop once it gets going, and when they string a couple of passes together, ala the Crusaders, they can translate pressure into points.
They’ll continue to whinge following this win, as the five-point return takes them to second position on the log. Had the Bulls sent their first-string to Newlands and beaten the Stormers, the Tahs would have hosted a play-off.
The Stormers should beat the Bulls B team on Saturday to book a home semi-final, a result that will see Waugh’s charges traveling from Sydney to take on an intimidating outfit in Cape Town. The other play-off should see the Bulls hosting the Crusaders.
By Jon Cardinelli