Newcastle nightmare as toothless Tahs get bitten by Sunwolves

Photo: AJF Photography

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They talked about the danger of it happening all week, but the Waratahs’ worst nightmares were realised on Friday night in Newcastle, with a 31-29 defeat to the bottom-placed Sunwolves immediately cancelling out the highs of last weekend’s victory over the high-flying Crusaders.

A hat-trick from former Western Force winger Semisa Masirewa did most of the damage, for a team that was told it would be axed from the competition just a week ago. His quickfire double in the second half restored the lead for the visitor’s, after Michael Hooper’s try had briefly promised a change of fortune for a below-par home side.

But in a game that may be remembered as much for the negative impact the ‘enforced rest’ absences of both Bernard Foley and Adam Ashley-Cooper had on proceedings, a performance littered with missed tackles, dropped ball and wasteful kicking was ultimately an evening to forget for New South Wales.

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It had all started so well for the Waratahs, over for the opening try inside 90 seconds off a pre-planned lineout move that caught their opponent’s cold.

Throwing in halfway between the Sunwolves 22 and their 10 metre line, hooker Damien Fitzpatrick fired it to the back for Michael Wells to take cleanly. And as he came to ground he slipped it to skipper Hooper, who burst unseen from the cluster of blue jerseys to catch the opposition defence by surprise, and find Nick Phipps lying in wait off his shoulder for the run to the line.

Nick Phipps_Waratahs v Sunwolves_2019_AJF

Nick Phipps races away for an early score – Photo: AJF Photography

Flyhalf Mack Mason, standing in for Foley, eased any nerves he may have been feeling with a routine conversion, while the crowd of rugby-loving Novocastrians roared their approval. This was going to be fun, wasn’t it?

The Sunwolves sought an immediate response, and were unlucky when a nice grubber down the short side from Hayden Parker copped a cruel bounce, with two of his team mates seemingly free for a run in. But they continued to ask questions with their offloading game either side of the ruck, and when Parker was illegally thwarted after a dart inside the opposition 22, the most reliable boot in Super Rugby right now wasn’t going to let 3pts go by.

A one-two down the sideline saw the Tahs in counter attack mode after the restart, Phipps and Cam Clark combining well to take their team 70 metres upfield, before a high shot on the scrumhalf afforded them optimal field position from the penalty. This time they drove the lineout within 10 metres before peeling off for Mason to free Israel Folau, only for the visitor’s linespeed to disrupt the fullback’s attention enough to prevent a routine finish.

But the penalties were beginning to mount up for the Sunwolves, and they were punished for it 14 minutes in. Another lineout gave the NSW forwards a chance to soften the line with some hard yards, suck in defenders, and create numbers out wide. It still took its time getting there, but eventually Mason found Kurtley Beale, who did brilliantly to draw a man and offload in the tackle for Clark to find the corner.

But the Wallaby no.12 had blotted his copybook within a couple of minutes. The Sunwolves built some phases on the edge of the Tahs’ red zone, Parker and halves partner Kaito Shigeno menacing around the fringes at pace, probing for a gap. And when Beale went too high and too soft on Grant Hattingh, the South African-born lock swatted him aside to stretch past Sekope Kepu and find the chalk.

Waratahs

Proud Novocastrian Harry Johnson-Holmes didn’t get to enjoy the homecoming he wanted – Photo: Karen Watson

Parker’s incredible record off the tee continued with his 29th successful kick in a row, and after such a positive opening, the Waratahs found themselves stuck very much in a contest as the game entered the second quarter.

Mason could have had his first try in NSW colours when he charged down a clearing kick from his opposite number and soccered ahead, only to overclub his second grubber on the run and watch the ball drift agonisingly out of reach.

Whether that missed half-chance played on his mind only he will know. But after a positive beginning from the 23-year-old – afforded precious little game time as Foley’s understudy in the last two years – things began to unravel.

A wobbly touchfinder was then backed up by a pass to Folau’s feet, before a kick straight out on the full coughed up cheap possession. Not that his was the only star beginning to fade mind you, as a general malaise began to creep into the entire home side, and the first tolling of the alarm bells rang when the visitor’s hit the lead on the half hour.

Inside centre Harumichi Tatekawa was causing problems with his multiple touches in midfield, carrying with both hands and keeping the Tahs’ defence guessing. And when they shifted it wide for Hendrik Tui to straighten, Mason’s tackle was enough to halt the flanker’s progress, but not to prevent the offload around the back of Alex Newsome to Dan Pryor, and the Sunwolves captain put Masirewa away for his opener.

Waratahs

Sunwolves winger Gerhard van den Heever was a handful – Photo: Karen Watson

The visitor’s prowess was paid due compliment when Michael Hooper pointed to the posts from the next kickable penalty, and Mason reduced the arrears to 17-15 at the break. But with the Sunwolves’ linespeed forcing them sideways and backwards, they were reverting to the benign attack that had blighted their start to the season before last week’s heroics over the reigning champions.

A botched take from the restart wasn’t the way NSW wanted to set the tone for the second half either. But after a bit of tit-for-tat in the middle of the park, a lovely looping pass out wide from Rob Simmons and good footwork from Newsome, soon had them on the front-foot. And when it was sent back along the line to the left, Hooper was on hand to lead by example when he powered his way to the chalk despite the attentions of three red jerseys.

But this Sunwolves side simply don’t go away, and lineout ball off the top and a defence that couldn’t slide quickly enough after Beale shot out of the line and missed his target, was punished in some style by Masirewa.

The Fijian-born speedster took a pop pass from Parker to carve a swathe through a blue wall suddenly missing a few bricks, going nearly 60 metres before finishing with an acrobatic dive to the corner for his double. But when he then pounced on another pass to the floor from the luckless Mason to race under the posts for his hat-trick two minutes later, the Waratahs’ version of rugby hara-kiri was in full swing.

The flawless boot of Parker added both conversions – make that 32 in a row – to open up a 31-22 lead with just over 25 minutes remaining. But NSW head coach Daryl Gibson had seen enough, Mason spared any further blushes with an early exit and Lalakai Foketi on at 13.

Waratahs

The performance of Lachie Swinton on his run-on debut was a rare positive for the Waratahs – Photo: Karen Watson

That meant the largely invisible Karmichael Hunt moved into 12, and the experienced Beale took the reins at 10. But let’s not burn Mason after one bad game. He’s shown more than enough in both the Shute Shield and NRC to suggest he’s a talent worth persevering with. He just needs more game time at this level.

Beale almost concocted a five-pointer with his first powerplay, kicking in behind for himself but outdone by the unpredictable physics of a spinning rugby ball. But the stand-in pivot didn’t take long to get on the scoresheet, a quick tap penalty and a swerve of the hips enough to catch the Sunwolves napping.

With renewed momentum, the fresh impetus of Jake Gordon, Tom Staniforth, Rory O’Connor and Chris Talakai from the bench, and 12 minutes still left on the clock, you still had the feeling the Waratahs would find something from somewhere, to rescue themselves from the brink of disaster.

But when you’ve got the usually impeccable Folau needlessly throwing the ball straight into opposition arms instead of taking the tackle, Ned Hanigan conceding an equally unnecessary penalty with the Sunwolves under pressure inside their 22, and Foketi throwing a forward pass to his outside runner – all in the space of a couple of minutes – the uncomfortable feeling that this was going to be ‘one of those nights’ was beginning to spread around the McDonald Jones Stadium.

To their credit the Sunwolves played out the closing stages perfectly, with some bloody frustrating but undoubtedly smart gamesmanship at scrumtime running down the clock. And when the siren sounded and Parker smashed the ball into the stands, it signalled the Tokyo-based side’s first win on Australian soil, just their second ever win outside Japan, and perhaps, just perhaps, the metaphorical extension of a rather large index finger in the direction of SANZAAR.

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SUNWOLVES 31 (Semisa Masirewa 3, Grant Hattingh tries; Hayden Parker 4 cons, pen) defeated NSW WARATAHS 29 (Nick Phipps, Cam Clark, Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale tries; Mack Mason 2 cons, pen, Kurtley Beale con) HT 15-17 at McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle

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