Second half fightback sees gutsy Tahs into the semis
The NSW Waratahs have made the Super Rugby semi-finals for the first time since 2015, after a courageous comeback – the second biggest ever in the competition’s knockout finals history – to down the Highlanders 30-23 at an ecstatic Allianz Stadium.
Down 23-6 at half-time, the game appeared to be up for a Tahs side that were out-gunned, out-muscled, and out-enthused in the opening stanza. But as with the regular season clash between these two at the same venue some two months ago – when a red card for the visitor’s cost them dearly in a 41-12 loss – a yellow card for Waisake Naholo proved to be just as destabilising, with the Waratahs racking up 21 unanswered points in a devastating 10 minute spell to take the game away from their opponents.
The Tahs now travel to Johannesburg to take on the Lions next Saturday night, for a shot at the grand final.
The home side made an inauspicious start when Bernard Foley’s kick-off failed to go 10 metres. But they drew first blood shortly after, Foley making swift amends with a regulation three points from in front, after the Highlanders were pinged for offside.
That was soon wiped out when Jed Holloway was penalised for not rolling away, and Lima Sopoaga dissected the uprights. And the penalty-athon continued when good work from Michael Wells over the ball earned yet another, and Foley returned serve for a 6-3 lead in a game that had seen precious little footy to that point.
But it was Sopoaga who broke the game open, throwing a dummy to swerve inside an onrushing Cambridge Blue line on 10 minutes, and fixing the last man for a simple final pass for Waisake Naholo to run into the corner. The home crowd were imploring referee Angus Gardner to take a look at a possible obstruction, but Sopoaga converted, and the visitor’s had a 10-6 advantage.
Israel Folau became the next victim of the Highlanders breakdown onslaught, getting isolated just outside his 22 and deemed guilty of holding on, and Sopoaga edged the men from Otago further ahead.
A line break from Damien Fitzpatrick almost opened the door for Curtis Rona, and then Ned Hanigan, out wide. But the Highlanders scrambled well, and after several helter-skelter moments including a no-look ‘Hail Mary’ pass infield from Foley, and an attempted banana kick off the floor from Will Miller, the move broke down once again at the hands of the dominant Highlanders at the ruck.
Things took a further turn for the worse for the Tahs on 24 minutes, the effervescent Sopoaga mixing up his game nicely with a spin and offload that wrong-footed the home defence, and carved a path to the posts for a jinking Rob Thompson.
There was an ominous confidence coursing through the visitor’s veins. They were here to play, and the Waratahs’ season was seemingly on the ropes before they’d barely thrown a shot.
The home faithful were incandescent again on the half hour, believing Kurtley Beale had been taken off the ball by Liam Squires. But replays showed that both players had committed to a tackle that never eventuated, and the Wallaby centre merely came off second best against the All Black loose forward.
Michael Wells was then left reeling when he got his head on the wrong side in a big collision with Luke Whitelock, before thankfully recovering to his feet after several worrying minutes of inactivity. But the leading tackler in the Australian conference in 2018 was a big loss as he trudged down the tunnel.
In the aftermath of all that, Sopoaga slotted another three points when the Tahs were penalised for not pushing straight at the scrum, and the need for them to find something before the break was now palpable.
Nick Phipps looked to be the catalyst when he snatched an intercept at the back of an overthrown lineout, kicked ahead and chased Naholo into the corner, and forced a penalty with help from his support.
But Fitzpatrick’s subsequent wayward throw at the lineout – not helped by a miscommunication amongst the revamped jumpers with Tom Staniforth’s arrival in place of Wells – just about summed up the opening 40 minutes for the hosts. And when Ben Smith kicked into the stands after the siren it was a signal the Highlanders were more than happy with their lot, and with one foot in the semi-finals.
They certainly started the second half like a side looking to land the knockout blow, and the Waratahs were hanging on in defence on several occasions. But a galloping Taqele Naiyaravoro broke the territory stranglehold ten minutes in, intercepting inside his own 22 and carrying just over halfway before being reeled in by Ben Smith.
The cavalry arrived to continue the fight, and when a rampaging Sekope Kepu was upended by a high shot from Naholo – who was sent to the bin – they had their chance.
But it’s one thing being given that chance, it’s very much another to actually go out and take it, and when several passes or options didn’t necessarily take advantage of the extra man, you wondered if this side had the wherewithal in a pressure situation to make it count. However, after Beale had already made a couple of unsuccessful inroads, it was a case of third time lucky as he probed the undermanned defensive line, and finally found an opening to offload for the supporting Foley to dive under the posts.
That was the cue for a Cambridge Blue barrage – led by the irrepressible Beale. Now afforded extra space, he was like a caged animal suddenly unleashed on an unprotected prey. And when the selfless Phipps bravely won a ball on the floor to kickstart another attack, it was Beale running from deep and punishing the fractured Highlanders line to put Folau away off his shoulder for the fullback’s 11th of the season.
A three-point ball game then, and with momentum swinging sharply their way, the Waratahs went in for the kill shortly after – and it was the best of the lot.
A lineout on halfway was sent infield and the Tahs went into overdrive, the ball firing its way through 17 passes and nine different pairs of hands with Beale, Folau, Phipps and Foley all heavily involved, before the last pass found the predatory flyhalf for his second of the night.
His successful conversion made it 27-23, and 21 unanswered points with Naholo on the naughty chair. But the winger’s return in the 63rd minute, meant the Highlanders still had plenty of time left with their full complement to turn things back around in their favour.
Their cause wasn’t helped when they coughed up an offside penalty right in front of the uprights, and Foley took his tally to 25pts – his most for New South Wales in a single match – to extend the lead to seven. But the visitor’s kept coming.
It needed a crucial turnover from Will Miller – luckily his forte – to end one 20-phase assault on the Waratahs line. But on their next visit into the red zone the Highlanders looked to have found their salvation, replacement Shannon Frizell barrelling over under pressure and claiming the try.
Ref Gardner hadn’t see a grounding and consulted with his TMO, and the replays backed up his original opinion that Frizell was just short. But the twist in the tail came when replacement Paddy Ryan was shown yellow for preventing a quick play-the-ball, and the Waratahs were forced to defend their lead for the remaining eight minutes with 14 men.
That would require courage, guts, game smarts, the support of an increasingly vocal Allianz Stadium crowd, and a seven man scrum that could stand up to the heat now being turned on in spades by the Highlanders pack. Cue Sekope Kepu.
Returning to the coalface to ameliorate Ryan’s absence, the 93-capped tighthead had to call on all his experience with the opposition looming just five metres from his team’s line. But three determined hits later – the last with the added ‘weight’ of Alex Newsome on the side – and Bernard Foley was able to clear to touch.
That left the Highlanders to chance their arm with the clock ticking down. And when the normally reliable Ben Smith knocked on trying a miracle pass to give the Tahs the put-in at another scrum, it was left to Jake Gordon to scoop up off the back and smash the ball into the crowd, and confirm a place in the semi-finals.
What a night. What a fightback. Phew!
NSW WARATAHS 30 (Bernard Foley 2, Israel Folau tries; Bernard Foley 3 cons; 2 pens) defeated HIGHLANDERS 23 (Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson tries; Lima Sopoaga 2 cons; Lima Sopoaga 3 pens) at Allianz Stadium. HT 6-23