Waratahs frustrated by impressive Lions

Photo: Adrian Koch

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A run of four wins in a row has come to an abrupt end for the NSW Waratahs, beaten 29-0 at Allianz Stadium last night by a Lions side that looked every inch the two-time grand finalists they are.

The records on the night don’t make for pretty reading. This was the first time the Waratahs have been held scoreless in the history of Super Rugby, the first time the Lions have won in Sydney, and – perhaps understandably – the biggest winning margin between the two in their 20 meetings dating back to 1996.

But it wasn’t just that the Waratahs lost, it’s that they were barely able to fire a shot back in anger. Such was the blanket the Lions spread across the Waratahs backline – Taqele Naiyaravoro in particular – that their ability to find the spaces they enjoyed last weekend across the road at the SCG was severely diminished. And after edging a tight first half 7-0, the Lions roared after the break, running in three more tries and another 22 unanswered points to leave the Waratahs with plenty to think about over the bye weekend.

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An early scrum win for the Tahs after the Lions collapsed, and two further penalties in quick succession, allowed the home side to set themselves up for a lineout move. But after Bernard Foley got involved with a couple of touches, the second cleverly targeting the underdone short side, captain Michael Hooper was shepherded into touch well by opposition winger Madosh Tambwe.

Another needless penalty – for accidental obstruction – had the visitor’s back defending their 22. But the Tahs couldn’t make full use of the field position, and 87% possession, with some neat interplay and a desire to use the width of the park undone by handling errors at crucial moments.

The Lions didn’t actually make it inside the Waratahs’ red zone in the opening 10 minutes. And when they did, a superb effort from Ned Hanigan, swimming through the maul to earn the turnover, soon blocked their attempts to open the scoring.

Kurtley Beale_Waratahs v Lions_2018_AK

Kurtley Beale tries to start an attack – Photo: Adrian Koch

But there was a sense that the visitor’s were slowly warming to their task after the early barrage from their hosts. They were doing a good job of slowing down the Waratahs’ ruck speed, much to the derision of most of the Allianz Stadium crowd, and they were also happy to put up a bevy of high kicks, most of which seemed to be falling back their own way somehow or another.

The Tahs’ creative engine took a hit at the end of the first quarter with Bernard Foley sent for a HIA after copping an accidental elbow from Lionel Mapoe in contact. Kurtley Beale moved into flyhalf with Lalakai Foketi on at 12, as the home side continued to search for some reward for their early endeavours. But after purring along slowly with precious little threat to that point, it was the Lions who broke the stalemate with a clinical bite.

A neat little chip over the top from scrumhalf Dillon Smit was fielded well by Ruann Combrinck, and the Springbok winger had Kwagga Smith off his shoulder for a run to the line, only for a terrific tackle from Hooper to bring him to ground 10 metres out.

But the Waratahs line was already fractured, and one wide pass later – just past an outstretched Beale looking for the intercept – and Tambwe was in for his sixth of the season.

They should have crossed again a couple of minutes later when Tambwe found space on the flank and chipped over Alex Newsome for the space in behind. It looked for all money like the young winger changed his line to prevent Tambwe’s progress, but referee Mike Fraser waved play on, only for no.8 Hacjivah Dayimani to knock-on with Taqele Naiyaravoro struggling to catch him.

With the game suddenly turning the way of the visitor’s, the return of Foley from the sheds after the green light from the medical staff was a welcome sight. And shortly after, an electric break from Jake Gordon down the left wing was only reeled in by an equally impressive turn of speed from Dayimani. But after recycling to the opposite flank where Beale just needed a switch runner on the inside, the Tahs had worked numbers back on the other, only for their own accidental obstruction to cruel their progress.

Waratahs v Lions

Tom Robertson makes some ground – Photo: Karen Watson / RA Media

They came again. A pop pass from Hegarty put Beale away down the sideline, Hooper took up the baton with a jinking run infield, and he in turn found Newsome hugging the touchline. Jake Gordon was screaming in support for the pass back inside and the inevitable five-pointer, only for the attentions of the scrambling Combrinck to force a handling error as Newsome tried to offload.

Pressure on an Elton Jantjes clearing kick gave the Waratahs a final shot at levelling the scoreboard before the break. But the crash-ball run by Naiyaravoro off a lineout was in danger of becoming predictable, and the Lions had clearly done their homework to put two men on him in contact and force the strip.

As the teams went to the sheds it was the Lions – who had only landed in Sydney late on Wednesday evening – that had the pep in their step. The Waratahs, by the standards they’ve set in 2018, were unusually flat.

Notice of their intentions to put the game to bed was served early by the Lions in the second stanza, hooker Malcolm Marx – arguably best on ground in the opening 40 minutes – profiting from a turnover to tear up the left flank and look for support before the Waratahs recovered.

But the home side were firmly under the pump, and after a superb counter ruck forced a penalty for hands in the ruck, the visitor’s went in for the kill off the lineout. When the ball came in it looked like the Lions were setting up a standard drive, but with the Waratahs angling towards the touchline, space opened up for Kwagga Smith to spin out of traffic and twist his way over the chalk for his side’s second.

However, as Jantjes lined up the conversion, the home crowd were letting ref Fraser know that the giant screens at Allianz were clearly showing Smith spilling the ball as he grounded. Bizarrely, he remained unbowed, and despite Jantjes’ subsequent miss, the South African conference leaders had a 12-0 cushion.

That soon became 19-0 as the Lions put their foot to the floor. The forwards did the hard yards up the middle, Jantjes span it wide for Mapoe, and when Beale came rushing out of the line looking for another intercept, centre Harold Vorster didn’t need a second invitation.

Alex Newsome_Waratahs v Lions_2018_AK

Alex Newsome gets airborne – Photo: Adrian Koch

The immediate riposte needed wasn’t helped by Foley’s kick-off failing to go 10 metres, a rare error that was only compounded by a scrum penalty from the adjusted restart on halfway as things began to unravel.

It took until the hour mark before the Waratahs constructed anything more of note. A lovely offload from Curtis Rona released Beale over halfway, who tore upfield and into the opposition 22. But when the support arrived and they looked to profit on the blind side, that man Marx was there again with a textbook steal.

And they butchered perhaps their best chance of the half shortly after, Damien Fitzpatrick passing straight into the hands of the lurking Ruann Combrinck, instead of the giant palms of the waiting Naiyaravoro with the line open.

The sight of five fresh faces joining the fray for the Lions all at once may not have imbued confidence in a Tahs side needing a boost from somewhere. And after constructing their longest period of sustained pressure in the match and coming up empty-handed, the game seemed to be well and truly over when the Lions went up the other end, and Jantjes added another three following a scrum penalty.

They put the icing on the cake with four minutes remaining. Another lineout was the Tahs undoing as the Lions shifted it early and bypassed the main thrust of Waratahs trying to hold them back, and replacement Marnus Schoeman mirrored Kwagga Smith’s earlier effort to find the chalk. Only this time, he added an actual grounding for good measure.

Whether it is a blessing or not after a result like this, the Waratahs now have the bye weekend to regroup and go again. Looking at the bigger picture, five wins and a draw from the first half of the season is not to be sniffed at. But this game showed they still have plenty to do in the final eight games of the regular season, if they are to set a genuine platform for a title challenge.

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LIONS 29 (Madosh Tambwe, Kwagga Smith, Harold Vorster, Marnus Schoeman tries; Elton Jantjes 3 cons, pen) defeated NSW WARATAHS 0 HT 0-7

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