Profligate Tahs catch a bad case of the Blues

Photo: John Flitcroft

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It was meant to be the night the ‘hoodoo’ was broken, the night Australia’s highest ranked team dispatched New Zealand’s lowest to restore some much-needed pride on this side of the ditch. But clearly nobody told the Blues this script, as they defended manfully and took the chances on offer to run out 24-21 winners over a misfiring Waratahs at Brookvale Oval on Saturday night.

The record of consecutive losses to New Zealand opposition by Australian Super Rugby sides now ticks along to a damning 38. But of greater concern to all involved with New South Wales was the way in which they let this one slip, another performance of great promise but too little execution, and one littered with handling errors and ill discipline.

They were playing catch-up from the moment they gifted Rieko Ioane the opening try, recovering from 10-0 down to trail 18-14 at the break. But although they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the second half, they struggled to make inroads against a Blues outfit that played handsomely above the levels they have attained for most of 2018.

A couple of second half penalties took the visitor’s back out to a 10 point lead, before captain Michael Hooper raced in for the home side to ensure a nail biting finish. But the Blues were dogged, determined and refused to yield, and held their nerve to claim just their third win of the season.

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An early chance for home points was passed up when Bernard Foley’s kick drifted wide of the uprights after the Blues infringed at the ruck. And the Tahs soon found themselves under their own posts from the visitor’s first semblance of attack, and they had only themselves to blame.

Skipper and scrumhalf Augustine Pulu put an inch-perfect kick down into the corner, and the kick-chase forced Israel Folau to play his way out of trouble, rather than clear upfield. The pressure he was put under was shifted to Foley, then on to Kurtley Beale, who was swamped by Blues jerseys and turned over, leaving Rieko Ioane with 10 metres to navigate for one of the easiest five-pointers of his short career.

Waratahs v Blues

Damien Fitzpatrick prepares for the lineout – Photo: Karen Watson / RA Media

Keen to hit back as soon as possible, the home side were gifted an attacking opportunity when a lifting tackle on Beale drew a penalty. The subsequent lineout maul was well defended by the Blues, but as the Tahs shifted infield with pick and drives, the Brookvale crowd discovered their voices.

But just as they looked like breaking through, a loose pass off the deck from Rob Simmons was snapped up by the alert Pulu, who fed it to Ioane with 90 metres of open field in front of him. Time and again we’ve seen the lightning-fast 20-year-old race home from these situations, but he’s never had to do so against Cam Clark, the Waratahs’ own speed-machine tracking his man and bringing him down just 10 metres shy of the line with a wonderful effort.

The Tahs’ desire to get themselves on the board in response was hampered by a litany of handling errors and pushed passes going to ground, that has been a persistent feature of their performances in 2018. Silly penalties weren’t helping either, the visitors extending their lead to 10-0 through a Stephen Perofeta penalty, when Will Miller played the halfback at the ruck.

Folau continued to look the Tahs best chance of breaking through a Blues defence belying their average concession of 32pts this season. Their linespeed was offering precious little room to manoeuvre for Foley and halves partner Jake Gordon, and their speed into the ruck and ability over the ball, was creating a succession of turnovers.

When the home side did finally find some space, it was Folau’s deceptive glide that did the damage. But when his offload to Lalakai Foketi was passed on by the centre to Clark, a reckless high shot from Dalton Papali’i prevented the young winger’s attempts to find the corner.

Deeming that if he had tackled correctly he still would have taken Clark into touch, ref Peyper issued a yellow card to the Blues openside without the added punishment of a penalty try. But the numerical disadvantage paid immediate dividends, Foley kicking the penalty to touch and the lineout maul on the money this time for hooker Damien Fitzpatrick to drive over.

Rob Simmons_Waratahs v Blues_2018_JF

Rob Simmons claims the throw – Photo: John Flitcroft

That should have been the catalyst for the Tahs to kick on and profit further, but the Blues showed just why they are still a side to beware despite their lowly ladder position, by grabbing the next score. Perofeta opened the door with a nice step and shimmy through a posse of Tahs forwards, then fullback Matt Duffie carried deep into the home 22 and isolated the retreating Taqele Naiyaravoro, before shifting it wide for winger Tumua Manu to power his way to the chalk.

Back came the Tahs, Folau again the instigator as he strode into the Blues’ red zone off a Beale pass, before feeding it back to the inside centre with a one-handed offload in the tackle. Beale was taken to ground, but placed the ball superbly for the arriving Sekope Kepu to scoop up and barrage his way over in the corner.

A terrific sideline conversion from Foley made it a one-point ball game, but as half-time neared, the Blues continued to threaten with ball in hand. Their ability to break the line and offload in the tackle was a real problem for the Tahs, and an offside penalty – dispatched by Perofeta – after Pulu and Akira Ioane menaced within range once again, was a smaller dose of medicine than they could have been forced to take.

No doubt reminded of the importance of ball security during the half-time break, the Waratahs put together a decent set of phases off the back of another impressive maul five minutes into the second half. But just as they looked to have worked themselves into a prime position to strike from a couple of metres, the Blues regained possession at the breakdown yet again, although the manner in which Akira Ioane did so by preventing Jake Gordon from picking up the ball, didn’t look too dissimilar to the penalty given against Will Miller in the opening stanza.

Gordon tried to mimic the efforts of Sekope Kepu’s earlier try, attacking the short side after good work from Naiyaravoro and Folau had blazed a trail for him to follow. But the alert halfback was missing the tighthead’s 38 extra kilos needed to power his way to the line, and he was shepherded into touch by a trio of Blues defenders.

As the clock ticked over the hour mark, the Waratahs were enjoying 65% possession but still had nothing to show for it. And when a bustling run from Akira Ioane was quelled by yet another piece of ill discipline from the hosts, Perofeta turned the screw with another 3pts.

That soon became a two-score lead when the Tahs were pinged for offside and Perofeta punished them again with his fifth successful kick of the night. As a result, the task of rescuing the game fell to the replacements, with Messrs Ryan, Roach, Johnson-Holmes, Phipps, Rona and Hegarty all joining the fray.

Waratahs v Blues

Michael Hooper slides home – Photo: Karen Watson / RA Media

But it was a player who rarely misses a second of top-flight footy who stepped up to drag them back into the contest. With the Blues numbered up on the left, Bernard Foley instigated an attack down the opposite flank, and after strong carries from Folau, Michael Hooper, Cam Clark and Paddy Ryan had taken them to the edge of the Blues 22, a short ball from Beale put his skipper through the line and away to the posts, thanks to his trademark turn of speed. 24-21.

A late hit on Nick Phipps looked to give the suddenly re-energised Tahs their best opportunity of a late winner. But just when they absolutely needed it, the rolling maul – perhaps the biggest positive of their evening to that point – couldn’t be set from the lineout, and the Blues eventually forced a turnover.

They got another chance when 18 patient phases set up camp in the opposition 22. But when every carry was met with stiff resistance by a desperate Blues defence, Beale opted for the ‘Hail Mary’ option with a booming crossfield kick for the leaping Folau, only to marginally overclub and see the ball fall into the safety of touch. A game of inches.

The final ignominy came after they stole lineout ball after the siren, with the Blues simply looking to preserve possession and kick it out for victory. But given the lifeline of one last assault, their night – indeed much of their season, was captured in a microcosm when the pass was pushed, the ball was spilt forward, and the shrill of Peyper’s whistle confirmed the preservation of kiwi domination.

The Waratahs maintain top spot in the Australian conference despite the loss. But given this was supposed to be the ‘easiest’ of their month-long series of trans-Tasman clashes, they have plenty of soul searching to do this week to try and rediscover their mojo ahead of the daunting upcoming challenges presented by the Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs.

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BLUES 24 (Rieko Ioane, Tumua Manu tries; Stephen Perofeta con, 4 pens) defeated NSW WARATAHS 21 (Damien Fitzpatrick, Sekope Kepu, Michael Hooper tries; Bernard Foley 3 cons) HT 18-14

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