Defensive mettle helps Waratahs end Crusaders’ unbeaten run

Photo: Karen Watson

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The SCG is proving to be a happy-hunting ground for the NSW Waratahs in Super Rugby, their third win in three appearances at the iconic cricket ground arguably their biggest yet, with two-time champions the Crusaders taken down 20-12 in wet and tricky conditions in Sydney on Saturday night.

In what is only their seventh win over the competition heavyweights in 26 attempts since the game turned professional, the Waratahs took advantage of a slow start from the visitor’s with a couple of quick-fire tries from Jed Holloway and Cam Clark helping them to a 12-0 lead.

Whether last week’s horrific events in their home city of Christchurch were still understandably playing on their minds is open to conjecture. But for a side as consistently brilliant as the Crusaders, they were definitely out of sorts for large periods of the first half in particular, and as head coach Scott Robertson conceded afterwards, they “dropped enough ball for the whole season” in the persistent rain.

A try before the break had kept them in the hunt at 15-7. But 16 missed tackles told it’s own story, and despite ramping up the intensity in the second forty, the Waratahs held firm, crossing for a decisive third through Israel Folau to bring to an end a 19-match unbeaten run for the Cantabrians.

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A late shower in the hour before kick-off had added some extra zip to a turf that had come in for plenty of criticism the last time the Waratahs were here against the Reds a fortnight ago. And with the heaven’s really starting to open up after the opening whistle, the handling skills of both sides would be severely tested.

Waratahs

An impeccable minute’s silence was observed prior to kick-off – Photo: Karen Watson

There was nothing wrong with the Waratahs ability to maintain possession when they opened the scoring just three minutes in. A scrum on the edge of the Crusaders’ 22 was fed infield by Nick Phipps for Adam Ashley-Cooper on the crash ball, and when Phipps got a second touch to pop up for Jed Holloway, the powerful second rower blasted through a soft effort from no.8 Whetu Douglas to go in near the posts.

The Crusaders set about building phases in response, but they were met by a well-marshalled wall of blue jerseys. Conversely, their own defence was unusually porous in the opening exchanges, Kurtley Beale making good ground with a jinking run down the short side, but unable to find his support runners before the visitor’s scrambled.

Utilising a kicking game in the wet to force errors is an obvious ploy. But when you’ve got a player with the aerial prowess of Israel Folau on board, you’re bringing a much bigger chair to the table than anyone else in world rugby.

So it was no surprise to see Bernard Foley put some ice on it off a lineout on halfway in the 11th minute, or to see Folau majestically soaring above all others to reclaim it. But it was the fact that the visitor’s back three had all been drawn into the ball and left a big hole out wide for Cam Clark to exploit – taking Folau’s offload to race to the corner for the Waratahs’ second – that was another uncharacteristic mistake from the champions.

In fairness, Braydon Ennor may have had something to say about it had he not tripped over George Bridge’s feet as he gave chase. But the Waratahs were more than happy to take advantage, and despite Foley’s second conversion of the night floating wide, the home side were 12-0 up in as many minutes.

Cam Clark_Waratahs v Crusaders_2019_AJF

Cam Clark dives home for the Waratahs’ second – Photo: AJF Photography

They’d led this fixture 29-0 in Christchurch last year of course, before being clawed back by a side used to finding ways to win. So there was no question of getting carried away with the early advantage, either on-field or in the stands. But every time the Crusaders tried to get a foothold in the match, the Waratahs’ defensive line was up to the task, while their exit strategies and execution were symptomatic of a team that were very much ‘on their game’.

They thought they had a third at the end of the first quarter, after some more sloppy handling from the Crusaders saw the ball hit the deck, and allow Alex Newsome to scoop up and race 50 metres into enemy territory.

The chasing Ryan Crotty reeled in his prey, but when the ball was recycled infield, Foley spotted no-one home and chipped for himself to regather and slide over the chalk with a couple of defenders for company. However, much to the dismay of the sparse but passionate home crowd, the flyhalf had knocked on as he tried to control the wet pill and find the line.

The Tahs kept their foot on the throat, the barreling frame of Sekope Kepu charging down Jack Goodhue’s clearing kick from the ensuing scrum, only to see the ball bounce frustratingly out of his reach and into safety. Before Folau countered with menace to tear a path through the midfield, only to suffer his own case of the yips as the ball slipped from his grasp.

But having created precious little at the right end of the field in an unusually off-colour opening, the reigning champions suddenly produced a moment of magic just before the half hour to get themselves firmly back on track.

A neat lineout play saw Matt Todd release Codie Taylor off the back, and the hooker’s reverse pass took out his opposite number Damien Fitzpatrick, and sent Bridge streaking through the hole and away for the try. Replays on the big screen suggested the pass was suspiciously forward. But referee Jaco Peyper didn’t require a second look, and Brett Cameron’s conversion brought his side right back into the contest.

Waratahs

Adam Ashley-Cooper put in a terrific defensive performance at 13 – Photo: Karen Watson

The home side got a chance to put a bit more air between them and their opponents when terrific work over the ball from Ashley-Cooper pinned Crotty on the ground to earn a penalty, and Foley’s superb long-range kick did the rest to make it 15-7 at oranges.

With the rain continuing to teem down at the iconic old cricket ground, kicking tennis was the order of the day in the opening minutes after the restart, as both sides invited the other to blink first, rather than chance their arm too boldly and get stung.

A pinball period of possession got NSW back in the opposition 22 in the 48th minute, Folau and Jake Gordon – on for Phipps at half-time – both kicking ahead before the newly-arrived scrumhalf was just beaten in a foot-race to the ball by Bryn Hall, who touched down in-goal.

The Tahs maintained the rage, the forwards carrying hard near the line but not quite finding the holes they were seeking, before the pack was forced to reshuffle on 52 minutes. The impressive Holloway went off with a painful looking rib injury, Michael Wells returned from his Sevens duties to resume his no.8 role, with Jack Dempsey shifting to blindside and Ned Hanigan into the second row.

The visitor’s should have narrowed the gap when Fitzpatrick was pinged for slowing down their ball. But replacement Mitch Hunt hooked his attempt agonisingly wide of the uprights. Bridge then thought he was in for a double when a tip-on in mid-flight from Foley to try and find his outside runners was plucked from the air by the Crusaders winger with open field ahead, only for ref Peyper to call him back for an earlier knock-on.

The Waratahs looked to the bench in the closing quarter to help preserve their eight-point lead, or to rubber-stamp the victory with another score. And if the ferocity and intent shown in the first few tackles from both Karmichael Hunt and Lachie Swinton were anything to go by, the Crusaders were going to have pull something special out of the bag to turn this one around.

Israel Folau_Waratahs v Crusaders_2019_AJF

Israel Folau was at his elegant best despite the incessant rain – Photo: AJF Photography

That task became even harder when the Waratahs did concoct an all-important third five-pointer with just over five minutes remaining. A lineout drive orchestrated by Rob Simmons made inroads and earned a penalty, and playing with the advantage, Foley put up the now trademark crossfield kick for the ‘birdman’ Folau.

Sandwiched between two Crusaders and fellow back Newsome however, the try-machine couldn’t quite take his usual mark. But when the ball fell to the floor he was the first to react, dabbing it down with glee to equal Doug Howlett’s all-time Super Rugby record of 59 tries.

There was still time for a late consolation for the Crusaders, finally making good on the counter attack they had threatened for most of the game when Bridge tore off down the sideline and had replacement Will Jordan on his inside for the run home.

But the night belonged to those in Cambridge Blue. They worked bloody hard for this across the 80 minutes and got their just reward. If they can foster the belief that beating the champions should harbour, this may just be the Waratahs’ most significant result in quite some time.

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NSW WARATAHS 20 (Jed Holloway, Cam Clark, Israel Folau tries; Bernard Foley con, pen) defeated CRUSADERS 12 (George Bridge, Will Jordan tries; Brett Cameron con) HT 15-7 at SCG, Sydney

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