Gritty Tahs hold out Brumbies to achieve final dream
Photo: Karen Watson
The NSW Waratahs can look forward to their first ever home final, next Saturday against the Crusaders, after seeing off a determined Brumbies side in tonight’s semi-final, 26-8, in front of the biggest Super Rugby crowd at Moore Park since 2005.
It was what semi-final football is all about. A tough, hard, uncompromising contest between two fairly evenly matched sides, and in the end, it was the qualities of the Waratahs at both ends of the pitch that ultimately decided it in their favour.
They were pushed hard for 75 minutes of an enthralling tussle by a Brumbies side that had the spirit, endeavour and application, but ultimately lacked the required cutting edge when it mattered. But it took a defensive effort of seismic proportions to keep them out, the Waratahs scrambling and scragging to protect their line in the second half and when push came to shove, they did have the weapons in attack, Will Skelton coming off the bench to play a pivotal role in one of the tries of the year as Bernard Foley went over for the match winner.
Edging a tight first forty minutes 11-8, the Waratahs were under the pump for the majority of the second half, penned inside their own 22 for large periods as the visitors threw the kitchen sink at them until Foley’s breakout try broke their backs with a touch over seven minutes remaining. Coach Michael Cheika paid tribute to the efforts of his determined charges.
“We know the Brumbies are a very physical team and we had to try and go out there and match that and keep that going for longer than they were,” he said. “We just had to keep delivering that platform and in the last 20 minutes, a few cracks started to appear and we took advantage. A lot of guys put their bodies on the line tonight and it was exciting, even though it wasn’t our best performance in terms of running rugby.”
Proud skipper Michael Hooper felt that his side got their reward for an outstanding effort. “We came up with – I won’t say lucky tries – but tries that we built under pressure and we’ll take that. They’re a tough side and they were a tough outfit tonight but we’re in the final. Defence wins you games and we were really good tonight.”
His opposite number Ben Mowen, playing his last match for ACT before heading to France, had no argument with the outcome given the dogged resistance they encountered. “We had plenty of opportunities but we have to give credit to New South Wales. They didn’t panic, they defended really well, and they defended our maul well, which has been a real strength of ours. They’re obviously the best defensive side in the competition for a reason.”
After a moment’s silence before kick-off to remember the victims of MH17, the atmosphere inside the stadium of 38,800 took little time to return to fever pitch once the whistle blew. The opening exchanges saw plenty of early snap in the tackling of a clearly fired up Jacques Potgieter and co, and the home side’s aggressive approach got an immediate reward.
With the Brumbies working their way along the line just inside the Waratahs half, there was more than one player with a wary eye on the waiting Potgieter. The ball duly went to ground and was scooped up by the grateful Alofa Alofa, who ran 60 metres to see off the chasing Jesse Mogg and find the line.
The perfect start was tempered somewhat by a missed conversion from Bernard Foley, but the score served to fuel the Waratahs’ hunger for more, as well as their fan’s expectations.
The all-action Potgieter burst through a gap on six minutes, but was maybe guilty of passing a touch too early to Wycliff Palu, whose pass to Alofa on his outside saw the flying winger outnumbered, and the Brumbies scrambled and forced a turnover.
While their open field play was crisp, the Tahs’ set-piece was under pressure. One lineout throw was nabbed by Brumby hands, while their scrum was penalised twice for an early hit, and as the game settled down, a trickle of Tahs’ errors saw the Brumbies slowly turn up the heat.
With their forwards edging the battle, they started to get some front-foot ball and shut down the Waratahs’ attack. But as a tense and ridiculously quick first quarter came to an end, an indiscretion from Sam Carter gave Foley the chance to extend the lead from right in front.
The nervous crowd lifted when a Mogg incursion into enemy territory ended with Michael Hooper marching him back 15 metres and into the turf to force a turnover. That was soon followed by another bellringer from Rob Horne on Tevita Kuridrani, but just as the crowd were warming to the task in support of their team, their elation turned to ire moments later, when scrumhalf Nick Phipps was adjudged to have impeded Robbie Coleman as he tried to reach a Mogg grubber, and referee Jaco Peyper awarded a penalty on the advice of his assistant.
The Brumbies, either in gung-ho mood or mindful of Christian Leali’ifano’s recent kicking woes, opted for the lineout. That in turn led to a period of pressure during which the visitors turned the screw, won another couple of penalties, backed themselves and eventually profited when the forwards drove towards the posts and opened the space out wide for Matt Toomua to put Henry Speight away.
Leali’ifano pulled the conversion and the Waratahs held a flimsy lead at 8-5.
With the penalty count mounting for the hosts, Mowen turned down a couple more shots from distance but didn’t hesitate to point to the posts once they were within range, and Leali’ifano didn’t let his skipper down, levelling the score a couple of minutes before the break. However, the parity was short lived as the Waratahs’ next attack procured a penalty from in front for hands in the ruck, and Foley sent his team to the sheds a mere 3pts to the good.
The Brumbies were on the front-foot straight after the restart and yet another infringement from the Waratahs brought a final warning from ref Peyper. But it didn’t yield the gift 3pts as Leali’ifano’s kicking yips returned, the ball shaving the upright from 15 metres in front.
The Tahs came again but were finding it hard to find any space or holes as the Brumbies line fanned out and choked their go forward. They were also helped by the officials’ refusal to penalise consistent offside but just as there appeared to be no way through, Kurtley Beale came up with a huge play, taking Mogg in a ball-and-all tackle and peeling away from traffic to race to the corner.
Foley’s conversion hit the post and the Brumbies should have cancelled out Beale’s score instanta when a jinking run from Speight made good ground before the ball was recycled coast to coast for a flying Robbie Coleman. But with the line gaping, the fleet footed winger dropped the ball cold.
Will Skelton entered the fray for Kane Douglas but his first action was a high shot on Nic White that went surprisingly unpunished other than a penalty. In a clear sign of the growing mistrust of Leali’ifano’s boot, Mowen again pointed to the touchline with 3pts on offer. But when the lineout was mauled, the Tahs forced a penalty to further frustrate their opponents.
It was one way traffic now, the Brumbies asking serious questions of the best defence in the competition as last year’s finalists threw their all at a chance of a repeat performance. But this Waratahs side is made of stern stuff, holding firm at scrum time and fighting like dogs on their own goal line to keep the ACT swarm at bay, and when they finally exited their own half, they were given the gift of a penalty after a high shot on Phipps.
Foley’s successful kick elicited a roar borne of relief as much as elation from the home crowd as the scoreboard showed 19-8.
The irrepressible Potgieter left the field to a standing ovation in the 67th minute. But as the nerves in the crowd became palpable, the Tahs faithful were rewarded with one of the tries of the season, in what was a perfect example of what this Waratahs side brings to the table – outstanding defence and lethal counter attack.
A desperate lunge from Bernard Foley in his own half forced an early pass from Joe Tomane after he’d looked to be away down the flank. The loose pill was picked up by Benn Robinson, who hit it up 15 metres before the ball was spread infield and the well-marshalled Israel Folau put Rob Horne away on his inside.
He in turn fed Skelton, and the big man proceeded to break through two Brumby jerseys, carry another 20 metres and offload in the tackle with one hand for Foley – who had tracked the play from his own inception – to take the pass and race home for the match winner.
One game away from history and it’s the Waratahs arch-nemesis in finals footy, the Crusaders, up next.
“You want to beat the best, we haven’t played the Crusaders this year so if we can knock them off, I think we’ll have earned the trophy,” said Michael Hooper. Never a truer word spoken.
NSW Waratahs 26 (Alofa Alofa, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley tries; Bernard Foley con, 3 pens) defeated ACT Brumbies 8 (Henry Speight try; Christian Lealiifano pen) Crowd: 38,800
First published by Rugby News on: Jul 26th, 2014