Waratahs hit the half century in Tokyo
The NSW Waratahs chalked up their third win in a row at the weekend, with a 50-29 dispatching of a gallant Sunwolves in windy Tokyo, moving them up to sixth on the overall Super Rugby ladder.
All the talk in the build-up was around the need to come away with a bonus point win over the bottom team in the competition, and while the Sunwolves fought fire with fire to rack up four tries of their own, the Tahs controlled enough periods of the game to run out deserved winners.
Taqele Naiyaravoro impressed again with another try, an assist, and a whopping 176 run metres. But there were good performances throughout the team, with Jake Gordon (two tries), Kurtley Beale, Will Miller and Ned Hanigan among the standouts. Captain Michael Hooper was another to shine in the overcast skies of the Japanese capital, but while he was happy with the win, there were still a few areas to be addressed in the aftermath.
“We came into this game fully aware of the threat the Sunwolves posed, and we weren’t surprised at all with some of the game they came up with,” he said. “It was a very tough game, a fast game, the conditions were trying, and I was really proud of our boys to dig deep and find some nice little touches on the ball.
“I think our transition was fantastic. We moved the ball to space, particularly to Taqele on the wing, who was special there today. Disappointing with some of our defence, I thought we couldn’t make stops and be able to slow their ball down or put pressure on there, which probably ultimately led to a couple of their tries. But we can go and look at that this week.”
It only took five minutes for them to open their account, and it was in-form wrecking ball Naiyaravoro that did the damage once again.
Taking a neat pass from Bryce Hegarty, the 123 kilo giant blasted a path down the left touchline, swatted aside Timothy Lafaele, brushed off Kotaro Matsushima, and threw a one-handed basketball pass infield for the supporting Bernard Foley to put Jake Gordon over from 10 metres.
But the Sunwolves took the early setback in their stride and set about applying pressure to the visitor’s 22, notching up a couple of penalties and handy field position in the process. One such infringement in the 9th minute saw them opt for a scrum, and when Michael Little ran a crashball that was halted by Foley, the inside centre smartly released the ball on the floor, scooped it up again and drove through the challenge of Gordon to find the line.
A Foley penalty edged New South Wales back in front a few minutes later, and they cemented that lead with another well-worked five-pointer shortly after. The alert Gordon took off from the back of a centre-field scrum and made good metres down the right, and when the ball was shifted coast-to-coast the Sunwolves were suddenly stretched, Foley putting Curtis Rona through a gap and the towering centre taking advantage of some hesitant defence to glide home.
The hosts looked to get themselves back on the scoreboard as the first quarter came to a close. But having worked themselves into prime position from a clever kick in behind, a loose pass was ruthlessly punished by a trio of Waratahs forwards showcasing their improving skill sets and awareness.
The errant pill fell behind the Sunwolves attacking line and was brilliantly picked up by Ned Hanigan. He found Damien Fitzpatrick in support with a pop pass from the floor, and the speedy hooker released the charging Will Miller off his shoulder, and all the way to the posts for his first Super Rugby try in the Cambridge Blue jersey.
In danger of seeing their opponents disappear into the distance, the Sunwolves hit back within two minutes – and how. The electric Little – son of former All Black great Walter – stepped on the gas after dummying his way out of his own 22, saw off a soft effort from Alex Newsome on halfway to tear down the sideline, before popping a pass over the top of some chasing Tahs for the seagulling Sam Wykes to run in.
Flyhalf Yu Tamura added the extras to make it 24-14, and reduced the gap even further just before the half hour when the Waratahs conceded a penalty under pressure. But just as the game seemed to be settling into a more even contest, the visitors struck again.
Given the put-in at a scrum 15 metres out from the Sunwolves posts, after good linespeed had forced a knock-on, Jake Gordon decided to take matters into his own hands and remind everyone of why he is one of the most dangerous halfbacks in the competition.
The first scrum was reset after both front rows popped up. But after the Tahs got a good second hit, Gordon spotted a giant gap between his opposing halves and peeled off the back to race through it and power over the chalk for his second.
They put themselves firmly in the box seat on the stroke of half-time. Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale had been swapping the role of first-receiver to great effect all half, and they combined again to pick holes through the home defence. The speed of the ruck ball played its part as they blazed a trail forward, before an outrageous one-handed offload in the tackle from a falling Beale put Bryce Hegarty over for try number five.
Up 38-17 at the break, the Waratahs made a slight backline adjustment for the second stanza, Hegarty replaced by Lalakai Foketi, who went to inside centre with the dangerous Beale reverting to fullback. But it was the forwards who did the damage just a couple of minutes in, skipper Michael Hooper the man at the back of a lethal driving maul, well-steered by Michael Wells, and the visitor’s appeared to be over the horizon.
But whatever brickbats you can throw at the Sunwolves for their porous defence and paltry winning percentage since entering Super Rugby, they don’t go into their shells when the chips are down, they certainly don’t die wondering, and if you switch off even for a moment, they can make you pay.
So it was that with the game firmly in their control, the Waratahs lost their structure and defensive pattern whilst trying to pressure for a turnover, and got burned.
Matsushima kickstarted matters from the edge of his own 22, sucking in a couple of defenders and finding his flyhalf Tamura, who fed Little and on to the waiting Semisi Masirewa. The former Western Force winger took off down the sideline, but he still had it all to do with a step inside Beale and a swerve around Naiyaravoro opening up a path to the line.
They should have had another just after the hour, flanker Yoshitaka Tokunaga ignoring the unmarked overlap his colleagues had created to step inside and go himself, only for a Michael Wells bell-ringer to bring him crashing to earth just short of the line, and some superb work from Foketi on the floor to hold man and ball off the ground. No try.
The home side went again off the resulting five-metre scrum, and after referee Angus Gardner had warned the Tahs a couple of times about repeat infringements with their line under siege, a further indiscretion from Hooper as he slowed down the ball saw the captain sent to the naughty chair.
The punishment was meted out immediately, the Sunwolves targeting their opponent’s undermanned scrum and halfback Yutaka Nagare peeling off and popping a neat reverse pass back for burly no.8 Kazuki Himeno to go over for his team’s fourth.
Replacement Hayden Parker’s quickly taken conversion meant that the Waratahs were suddenly looking over their shoulders with a 14pt lead, 14 minutes left to play, and their talismanic leader in the sin bin. But that was the cue for the in-form Naiyaravoro to step up to the plate again, and having terrorised several traumatised defenders with one trademark surge down the flank, he didn’t need a second invitation to grab his sixth try of the season after his team mates went down the line for Wells to feed the killer pass.
Foley’s conversion brought up the half century for the second time in the last three games for a Waratahs team showing clear signs of growing cohesion, belief and confidence in what they are trying to put out on the park. But that 12-all second stanza – albeit into a pretty stiff breeze – will need to be dissected and improved upon before the Queensland Reds rock up to the Sydney Cricket Ground this Saturday for a potentially seismic derby in the Heritage Round.
NSW WARATAHS 50 (Jake Gordon 2, Curtis Rona, Will Miller, Bryce Hegarty, Michael Hooper, Taqele Naiyaravoro tries; Bernard Foley 6 cons, pen) defeated SUNWOLVES 29 (Michael Little, Sam Wykes, Semisi Masirewa, Kazuki Himeno tries; Yu Tamura 2 cons, pen, Hayden Parker con) HT 38-17