Last-gasp Waratahs down Stormers in a tussle

Photo: J.B Photography

*********************

It wasn’t utterly convincing, it certainly wasn’t the performance of champions elect – after all, it is only round one. But while the Waratahs can reflect on plenty of room for improvement after their opening game of the season, they can walk away content with their desire and determination after a try from Ned Hanigan in overtime earned them a 34-27 win over the Stormers.

With the Allianz Stadium clock ticking down, it looked like both sides would have to settle for a draw, possibly a fair result given the swings and arrows of the contest between two fairly evenly matched teams. Both had their moments with ball in hand, both still suffered from the early-season plague of handling errors, but it was the visitors’ set-piece, in particular the scrum, where they garnered an edge over the 80 minutes, and the home side had to dig deep to find another way to win.

They’ve talked about their improved fitness in the off-season, and it was evident here in the closing stages as they continued to search for a winner with several Stormers players cramping up. And when Jake Gordon and Bernard Foley combined to put debutant Harry Johnson-Holmes in space, he had the ‘seagulling’ Hanigan in tow to finish the job and seal that all-important first-up victory ahead of a tough trip to South Africa and Argentina.

“It was a good team effort there at the finish,” the Wallaby loose forward said afterwards. “I think Jakey Gordon got a very good call from Nard (Bernard Foley) on the edge, and Harry Johnson-Holmes on debut drew his man, and I was in the right place at the right time. It’s not too bad when you’re on the end of something like that, so hopefully there’s plenty more of those to come.

“The game was probably won through the middle and the forwards. We knew the Stormers were going to bring a big pack, so definitely through the guts of it was where we won it tonight. All in all it was a good effort from the fellas, and I think when we get on the plane tomorrow, there’ll be smiles from ear to ear.”

The game was only three minutes old when quick-thinking from Kurtley Beale caught everyone by surprise, and then holding their breath, as the returning star chipped over the top and chased hard into the corner. The fickle bounce of a rugby ball denied him a dream start to his Waratahs comeback, but the intent was clear. They were here to play.

Waratahs

Curtis Rona wraps up Stormers flyhalf Damian Willemse – Photo: RA Media/Karen Watson

The Stormers were enjoying most of the early possession and looking to test the Waratahs defence with ball in hand, or a cheeky kick in behind if the opportunity presented itself. But what was a tragically porous wall of Cambridge Blue jerseys last year, was immediately up to the task in terms of linespeed, and in not missing their intended targets. Their downfall was the ability to retain possession at the breakdown, as time and again a black jersey emerged from a melee with the Gilbert tucked under their arm.

It took over 10 minutes for the home side to enjoy their first bit of phase play in the opposition half, but just as they looked to have stretched the Stormers line to breaking point, an outstretched hand from captain Siya Kolisi sent the ball to the floor. After much consultation with his TMO, referee Angus Gardner awarded a penalty only, and Bernard Foley opened the scoring.

It was to be the briefest of advantages however, as the visitors struck back straight from the restart. No.8 Michael Wells received the kick-off but was isolated as a posse of Stormers drove over him. The visitors pounced, finding the Waratahs out of shape on the blindside as fullback SP Marais danced his way through a couple to feed Raymond Rhule, and the new arrival from the Cheetahs didn’t need a second invitation to put prop Steven Kitshoff over.

Showing that a lack of concentration was a spreading disease, the Stormers subsequently switched off in celebration too. Foley put up a towering bomb, and the onrushing Israel Folau easily outjumped Damian Willemse and found nobody home to open his account for the year with his 46th try in Super Rugby.

The Waratahs were starting to miss the odd tackle or being caught coming out of the line, and Marais found a half gap to put Nizaam Carr under the posts. Or at least, that seemed to be the obvious outcome were it not for a miraculous last-man tackle from Jake Gordon, which allowed the troops to regroup on the goal-line. From there, Paddy Ryan effectively took one for the team when he strayed offside to allow Marais to level the scoreboard with a simple three-points. Damage limitation.

The Tahs put together their best move of the game just before the half hour, Folau making the initial break before a lovely interchange of passes between Gordon and Lalakai Foketi opened the door for Beale. But with the line beckoning, the last pass was deflected off a Stormers hand as Dillyn Leyds played at it, and the Wallaby centre spilt it forward as he tried to gather. A raft of home jerseys and the majority in the crowd pleaded for a deliberate act and some form of sanction, but their protestations fell on deaf ears.

Waratahs v Stormers Rnd 2 2018

Scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage clears the ruck for the Stormers – Photo: J.B Photography

However, the home faithful didn’t have to wait long for a reprieve. Another terrific hit from Gordon, finished off by Foley, forced Marais into touch as he tried to run it out of danger. And when the throw came in from hooker Damien Fitzpatrick, there was precious little resistance from the Stormers as skipper Michael Hooper powered over.

Foley’s conversion made it 17-10, but with the pendulum constantly swinging in terms of momentum, neither side could stay in control for long enough to kick away from the other. So it was no surprise when the Stormers hit back again before half-time. Working some phases through the forwards they eventually targeted the blindside again, and another chip kick over the top caught the Tahs flat-footed for flanker Kobus van Dyk to slide home. A terrific sideline conversion from Marais and it was all-square at the break.

It was first blood to the Tahs after the restart. Kurtley Beale was probing and almost put Hanigan away down one flank, but a few phases later, and with the Stormers a man down with Willemse getting treatment, it was his crossfield kick that found Curtis Rona, who popped up for the ever-industrious Fitzpatrick to find the line.

The Stormers thought they had hit back again on 48 minutes, when the dangerous Rhule found a gap and put JJ Engelbrecht away. The centre looked over for all money but for a sensational tackle from Israel Folau, who wrapped up his man, rolled him and held him up. Cue bum taps aplenty.

Play was called back for a penalty as skipper Hooper was given a warning from ref Gardner about repeat infringements. But it was at scrumtime where the Waratahs were really beginning to creak, and when they were put under extreme pressure again under their own posts, the Stormers went in for the kill. A first dominant shove earned another penalty, and after packing down again, the second forced the Tahs back on their heels and opened the door for Marais to go over from a metre, and duly convert his own good work.

Another scrum penalty soon had the Stormers back in prime field position, but there was worse to come for the hosts as Rob Simmons saw yellow for taking out the jumper’s support from the ensuing lineout. Sniffing blood in the water, the visitors called for the scrum and marched forward, only to pay the price for some poor handling as the under-pressure Waratahs rearguard held firm and forced the error.

Waratahs

Damien Fitzpatrick slides in for the Waratahs’ third of the night – Photo: RA Media/Karen Watson

Having escaped unscathed on their own line, the Tahs went on the counter-attack when a couple of needless penalties from the visitors piggy-backed them upfield. And when an impudent kick over the top from Foley saw Beale arrive like a thief in the night and appear to slide home, the busy TMO was called into action once again. The ruling was a no-try, however, play was called back for an earlier infringement and Foley had the last say, dissecting the uprights for a three-point lead with just over quarter of an hour remaining.

Yet again, that advantage didn’t last long, another breakdown infringement allowing the laser-like left foot of Marais to restore parity. This was going to go down to the wire.

But with the Stormers suddenly looking tired, the Waratahs had the chance to put their much-vaunted improved fitness to the test. Beale and co. visibly upped the ante, but the black wall was resolute, and once too often a promising attack faltered with a dart down the wrong alley. There was a certain vim and vigour to the home side at times that was sadly missing last year, but the errors that cruelled them so often in 2017 were still all-too frequent.

That looked like it was going to be the postscript to the game when Michael Wells and Folau got their wires crossed as they looked to have worked an overlap with a minute remaining. But there was still a twist in the tail to come.

Tasked with a lineout in their own half and the option to run down the clock and take the draw, or go for glory, the Stormers managed neither, as an overthrow landed straight into the arms of replacement hooker Hugh Roach. A powerful carry from the young rake was backed up by an explosive surge from fellow replacement Jed Holloway, and with the clock in the red, the brains trust of Gordon and Foley concocted one final opening for Hanigan to swat aside two Stormers and grab what could be a vital match-winner.

Never in doubt…

NSW Waratahs 34 (Israel Folau, Michael Hooper, Damien Fitzpatrick, Ned Hanigan tries; Bernard Foley 4 cons, 2 pens) defeated Stormers 27 (Steven Kitshoff, Kobus van Dyk, SP Marais tries; SP Marais 3 cons, 2 pens) HT 17-17

 

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