Folau at the double as relieved Tahs edge plucky Sunwolves
Photo: Karen Watson Photography
The Waratahs have survived an almighty scare in Tokyo, sneaking home 31-30 yesterday afternoon over a Sunwolves side that made a mockery of the pre-game predictions of a comfortable victory for the visitor’s.
Having put over 50pts on the Sunwolves in each of their three previous encounters, including a 77-25 shellacking in Sydney last year, the Tahs also went in with the knowledge that their opponents had shipped 45pts to the Sharks in round one. But any ideas of rudimentary fun in the land of the midnight sun were quickly dispelled, as the home side produced a vastly improved defensive display, and plenty to like in attack.
Drawn into an unstructured match, the Tahs were guilty of overplaying their hand too often, a swathe of turnovers and ill discipline gifting their hosts with plenty of means with which to stay firmly in the contest for 80 minutes. And by the end, it was the visitor’s who were hanging on and breathing a sigh of relief as they picked up their first win of the new season.
The visitor’s could have crossed in the opening minute, Rob Simmons spilling the ball off a botched Sunwolves lineout with the line begging. And after working themselves into good position after an initial intercept from Jack Dempsey a few minutes later, they looked to be in for all money when the final pass went wide for Curtis Rona to run in his second of the season, only for his former Western Force team mate Semisi Masirewa to knock the ball from his grasp as he dived for the corner.
That was some small consolation for Masirewa, who was sent from the field in the last clash between the two sides in Sydney that paved the way for that 77-25 demolition. And his intervention was only enhanced when the Sunwolves suddenly turned the blue tide around to claim the first five-pointer of the afternoon.
Testing the fringes from a lineout, the Waratahs were patiently tracking coast-to-coast in search of one decisive runner to break the line and open the door. But with the home side fronting up in defence off the back of some pretty potent linespeed, it only took one stray pass to be punished, Ryoto Nakamura picking off Simmons to go almost the length of the field, before finding Gerhard van den Heever in support for the opener.
But the spirit of gift-giving was contagious, and the home crowd had barely a minute to revel in their team’s success before they were watching them standing back under their own posts. The restart was fed back to centre Shane Gates for the exit kick, but an ill-advised chip kick instead fell straight into the arms of a gleeful Kurtley Beale – back after last week’s questionable omission, and he had the formality of a 25 metre scamper to the line for the quickest and easiest of ripostes.
A see-sawing period of possession in the 14th minute was ended when Dempsey pounced on a handling error to chase hard and force a turnover penalty inside the Sunwolves’ 22. No doubt based on the Japanese side’s struggles up front against the Sharks the week before, skipper Michael Hooper called for the scrum. But a terrific shove from the home eight had the Waratahs pack going backwards, and the penalty they were awarded served as a handy psychological boost.
When the visitor’s then strayed offside a couple of minutes later, Hayden Parker stepped up to edge the Sunwolves 10-7 in front. And having worked themselves into several good positions in the opening quarter, the Waratahs hadn’t been able to make the inroads onto the scoreboard they had become accustomed to in this fixture.
But any developing nerves were soon allayed when Israel Folau, Alex Newsome and Karmichael Hunt finally combined to break down the red wall, and send the potent fullback over for his 57th try in New South Wales colours.
He was in again soon after, and this time it was all his own work. Taking a pass from Hunt some 40 metres out he stepped out of one tackle and swatted aside another, before putting on the afterburners to scorch his way around a third to find the line and overtake the great Joe Roff as Australia’s all-time leading try-scorer in Super Rugby.
Another penalty gave Parker the chance to reduce the gap, and with a few minutes remaining before oranges the local heroes had the Tokyo faithful off their feet with another try to hit the lead.
It came at the end of another crazy couple of minutes of counter-attack from both sides. Sekope Kepu looked like he was on his way to one of the front-row tries of all-time when he scooped up in his own half and raced 40 metres upfield, only to be ankle-tapped and spill the ball loose in sight of glory. And when the Sunwolves hit the go-button in response they did so at lightning speed, running a suddenly tiring Tahs defence off their feet to forge a gap for Nakamura to put lock Tom Rowe under the posts.
The home side duly went to the sheds with a 20-17 lead, albeit with the benefit of having a pretty stiff wind at their backs in the opening stanza. But if the Waratahs weren’t to heed the advice that must have been coming their way from a perplexed coaching team, regarding sticking to structures rather than playing ‘loosey-goosey’ against a team that want you to do exactly that, they were staring down the barrel of an embarrassing defeat.
They didn’t get the start they wanted in the second half, Folau with a rare handling error that got the Sunwolves on the front-foot, and when the Waratahs strayed offside again, Parker made it a six-point game.
But after settling down and putting some phase play together in the opposition half, in the face of some superb defensive efforts from the Sunwolves, they managed to muster a much-needed third five-pointer. Industrious hooker Damien Fitzpatrick went mightily close to finding the line when he hit a short ball off a nice angle. But after several recycles continued to soften the home line, the forwards eventually got their reward when the ubiquitous Dempsey was driven over with the help of Hooper and Simmons, and Bernard Foley’s conversion edged the visitor’s back in front.
It was the piggies who took the plaudits again just after the hour to cement the Tahs’ new-found advantage. Two successive lineouts were driven and illegally felled by the Sunwolves on their own line, leading to a final warning from debutant referee AJ Jacobs. But the sight of Israel Folau lifting and replacement Adam Ashley-Cooper jumping at the front of the next throw as they put nine men in, was enough to bamboozle their opponents further, and a third infringement in a row led to Jacobs running under the posts to signal a penalty try, and veteran Luke Thompson paying a further price with 10 minutes in the bin.
However, instead of the Waratahs putting the hammer down with the man advantage, it was the Sunwolves who carried the fight for all they were worth while Thompson sat on the naughty chair. Raising the pace once again they threw the kitchen sink at their opponents, with the demonstrative battering ram that is Uwe Helu a go-to weapon.
But it was a play that had it’s origins on the international stage that caught the Waratahs cold. Recreating the famous try scored by Ayumu Goromaru towards the end of Japan’s incredible defeat of the Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, decoy runners and a neat inside ball off a scrum set the powerful van den Heever through a hole, and the South African-born winger had the gas to see off both Beale and Folau to smash a path to the chalk for his second.
Parker added the extras to set up a helter-skelter finale, as the Sunwolves sniffed a famous scalp and went for the jugular. Former Southern Districts loose forward Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco looked to be away down the touchline, only for Kepu to reel him in and Beale to mop up. But they came again, and with two minutes left on the clock the crowd was off their feet when Parker sat back in the pocket and dropped a field goal for victory, only to see it fall wide thanks to the onrushing efforts of Karmichael Hunt.
That left the Waratahs to run down the clock with pick and drives, and when Jake Gordon belted the ball over the sideline after the siren sounded, no-one of a Cambridge Blue persuasion can be in any doubt as to how close they had been to coming unstuck.
NSW WARATAHS 31 (Penalty Try, Israel Folau 2, Kurtley Beale, Jack Dempsey tries; Bernard Foley 2 cons) defeated SUNWOLVES 30 (Gerhard van den Heever 2, Tom Lowe tries; Haydn Parker 3 cons, 3 pens) HT 17-20