Determined Tahs claim capital gain in derby

Photo: John Flitcroft / Flitty Images

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It wasn’t always pretty, but the Waratahs won’t be complaining after claiming their first away win in six attempts, and only their fourth ever victory in Canberra, with a 24-17 victory over the Brumbies last night.

Two tries either side of half-time from Taqele Naiyaravoro were a turning point for the visitor’s, who enjoyed plenty of possession and territory across the 80 minutes, while often struggling to make particularly good use of it.

But they had to deal with the early loss of Israel Folau to a suspected hamstring injury, were the better side for large parts of the game, and can take plenty from a second half performance that saw them limit the Brumbies’ opportunities with some gritty defence and a fast-improving improving set-piece.

“They’re never easy [in Canberra], like tonight, so it’s a special night for the guys,” said New South Wales skipper Michael Hooper afterwards. “We had some changes early on there and we managed to put pressure, and leave pressure on the Brumbies for a lot tonight.

“He’s [Folau] a huge weapon at all times so I’m hoping he’s not too bad – for us and for himself, he’s playing some good rugby there. The guys adapted well, we put the ball in the air and got through, and guys like Alex Newsome were really good in the air and changed the game for us there.

“We were denting them quite well, we were starting to build some good phases and then, we couldn’t play our structure off the sideline, which was frustrating. [But] I’m so proud of the guys. It’s good times and we’re off to Japan next week to go again.”

The Waratahs were on it from the opening whistle, a burst down the left flank from Naiyaravoro brilliantly quelled by a legs tackle from Andrew Muirhead, before a trademark step and surge from Israel Folau led to a ruck infringement from Rory Arnold, and Bernard Foley opened the scoring.

Israel Folau_Waratahs v Brumbies_2018_JF

Israel Folau was an early bystander after tweaking his hamstring – Photo: John Flitcroft / Flitty Images

However, the positive start from the visitor’s was instantly derailed by the sight of Folau heading straight to the bench, having tweaked his hamstring in the run. On came Alex Newsome as a straight replacement on the wing, but whether it was Folau’s departure that had an immediate impact or not, momentum swung back to the home side as a couple of penalties piggy-backed them within range, and Wharenui Hawera levelled the scoreboard.

The Tahs missed a chance to immediately edge back ahead when a high shot on Foley gave the Wallaby flyhalf another shot at the posts, but the leading points-scorer in the competition before the weekend pushed a rare one wide. And when Naiyaravoro dropped an intercept with 65 metres of clear field in front of him, you wondered if it was going to be one of those night’s for the men from Sydney.

A breakdown penalty conceded by Hooper at the end of the first quarter then allowed Hawera to put the Brumbies in front for the first time, before Foley’s ‘yips’ continued when he pushed another one wide from the restart after Isi Naisarani was needlessly pinged.

The cagey nature of a derby tussle meant that genuine try-scoring opportunities were at a premium, with the breakdown as hotly contested as ever. So when Hooper’s anticipation pinned Muirhead behind the gain-line and left him exposed for the turnover, it was no surprise to see the skipper opt for the 3pts, and afford Foley a chance at successful redemption.

It was an unusual error of judgement from Jed Holloway that opened the door for the first five-pointer of the evening, the burly no.8 misjudging the distance between his feet and the sideline from the kick-off to gift the Brumbies a handy lineout position. But don’t underestimate the execution and vision displayed by the home side as Naisarani and Christian Leali’ifano knocked on the door, and Hawera’s clever grubber in behind gave Lausii Taliauli the chance to smash it over as he got there first to touch down.

With half an hour gone the Waratahs had enjoyed almost 70% of time in the opposition half but done precious little with it, and another bevy of turnovers and handling errors was cruelling their progress. By contrast, the Brumbies were fronting up nicely at set-piece and breakdown time, but were also struggling to get past seven phases when they did have ball in hand.

Tevita Kuridrani_Brumbies v Waratahs_JF

Tevita Kuridrani is stopped by Curtis Rona – Photo: John Flitcroft / Flitty Images

But proving that it often only takes a smattering of passes to strike gold rather than an elaborate succession of phases, right on the stroke of half-time the visitor’s finally got some tangible reward. Spilt pill in contact gave the Waratahs licence to roam, led by a counter-punch from Michael Wells against his former side. And when Gordon and Kurtley Beale saw an opportunity out wide, it was the behemoth Naiyaravoro who brushed aside fellow Fijian Henry Speight to stride away for the corner with ease.

Foley’s radar returned in style as he converted his toughest kick of the night off the upright for a narrow 13-11 half-time lead. But it only took a few minutes of the second stanza for the Waratahs – and the increasingly influential Naiyaravoro – to flex their muscles even further.

You’ve gotta love a first-phase try, and this one was poetry in motion. Jake Gordon found Foley off a scrum, the no.10 swapped passes with Beale in a wraparound that used the decoy run of Curtis Rona to release Newsome through the gap, and the replacement winger stretched the Brumbies out wide before offloading one-handed for the giant Fijian to grab his second double in successive matches.

Not for the first time this season, the Waratahs then shot themselves in the foot having just gained some ascendancy, Rob Simmons playing the man in the air at the lineout and Hawera reducing the margin back to four at 18-14.

Both sides made changes as the hour ticked over, Naiyaravoro and Holloway making way for Lalakai Foketi and Tom Staniforth, while Joe Powell and Muirhead were replaced by Matt Lucas and Tom Banks respectively. But with the Brumbies now struggling to get out of their own half, the Tahs had effected some sort of stranglehold on the game, without ever convincing that they had what it took to put their opponents to the sword.

Tom Robertson_Waratahs v Brumbes_2018_DM

Tom Robertson worked tirelessly in the loose – Photo: David Molloy Photography

A high shot from new arrival Richie Arnold on Staniforth saw Foley extend the lead to a converted try at 21-14, only for Hawera to cancel that out with 10 minutes remaining after yet another breakdown infringement. But a late hit from Speight – not enjoying his finest night in Brumby colours – on Wallaby roommate Beale, soon had Foley lining up a shot at the posts.

Unfortunately for those of a Cambridge Blue persuasion, the ball cannoned back off the uprights to make it 11pts bypassed off the boot, and a game which could have been in the bag already was destined for a nervous final denouement.

That tension was broken somewhat by the Waratahs pack, much maligned at scrum time thus far in 2018, who got the chocolates on Easter weekend with a penalty after the Brumbies front row collapsed. Foley – as he has often done in his career – got it right when it truly counted, to make it 24-17 with just over three minutes remaining.

The visitor’s still had to live on the edge in the closing moments. A crucial lineout steal from Rob Simmons thwarted one Brumbies opportunity with the line in sight, and the pack as a whole took the plaudits after the siren as one of the most potent driving mauls in the competition was upheld legally in the eyes of referee Nick Berry, and the turnover was awarded.

The ball was duly kicked into the crowd, Waratahs’ arms went up in celebratory unison, and the coveted Dan Vickerman Cup was heading back up the Hume Highway.

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NSW Waratahs 24 (Taqele Naiyaravoro 2 tries; Bernard Foley con, 4 pens) defeated ACT Brumbies 17 (Lausii Taliauli try; Wharenui Hawera 4 pens) HT 13-11

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