‘Marky Mark’ shines but Crusaders too clinical for Tahs in opener
Photo: AJF Photography
Different season, same old Crusaders. Despite losing a bevy of star names in Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Jordan Taufua and Matt Todd in the off-season, the champion Cantabrians have opened the defence of their Super Rugby title with an impressive 43-25 defeat of the Waratahs in Nelson. But the similarly new-look Tahs can take plenty from their first serious hit-out under head coach Rob Penney, in particular the talents of two-try debutant winger Mark Nawaqanitawase.
The visitor’s started brightly, injecting plenty of pace into their game to stretch the home defence as they looked to unleash their backline combinations, with Kurtley Beale chiming in from fullback at every opportunity. But despite enjoying most of the early territory and possession, it was the Crusaders who opened the scoring just before the 10 minute mark, David Havili slotting 3pts after the Tahs strayed offside.
That was cancelled out within a couple of minutes when the Crusaders did the same, and another debutant in the shape of Will Harrison at flyhalf broke his Super Rugby duck with a routine kick from in front to settle the nerves. But the Waratahs were back under their own posts shortly after the restart, a superb touchfinder from Havili gifting the forwards a chance to rumble a maul within range, before quick hands back to the flank saw Will Jordan step inside Nawaqanitawase to find the chalk.
Harrison kept the visitor’s in touch with another penalty as an entertaining and open first quarter drew to a close. And there was plenty to enjoy from those in Cambridge Blue, the ball singing through the hands with offloads aplenty as the Crusaders’ discipline was found wanting. But just as they looked to make good on their attacking promise, they were caught cold.
Kurtley Beale looked to run a clearing kick back with interest, only to hit a wall of red on halfway. And when the ball fell loose and was scooped up by the alert Leicester Fainga’anuku, he had Mitch Drummond in support to set Braydon Ennor away for the try with the Waratahs defensive line fractured.
Beale thought he had made immediate amends when he ran home after Jake Gordon sniped his way through midfield, and exchanged passes with Harrison to set the fullback away. But the try was chalked off for a forward pass from Gordon, despite his hands seemingly going backwards as he offloaded.
That setback was further amplified when the Crusaders fashioned a third five-pointer before half-time. Richie Mo’unga put up a soaring kick that was taken brilliantly by Fainga’anuku on halfway. And as the flying winger returned to earth, he had too much power for Beale, Alex Newsome, and Michael Hooper to hold, and too much pace for the cover defence to catch, as he slid into the corner.
A terrific sideline conversion from Havili added further damage to the scoreboard, although he inexplicably missed a chance to turn the screw even further when he shanked one from in front after his pack had won a scrum penalty. But having put up a fairly decent showing for large parts of the half, the Waratahs still trudged to the sheds with plenty to do at 24-6.
They returned with renewed vim and vigour, but it was another error in possession that almost cost them dearly just a couple of minutes into the second stanza. A pushed pass under pressure gifted the Crusaders the pill, and no matter who is donning the jersey, it is firmly in the Cantabrian DNA not to require a second invitation to punish off turnover ball, a knock-on from replacement Brett Cameron the only thing to spare the Waratahs’ blushes on this occasion.
As much promise as they were showing when they did have the ball, thus far the Tahs were missing a cutting edge to make good on their intent. And even though this is only round one, you could still picture Rob Penney tearing a few strands from his silver mane when his charges conspired to butcher a golden opportunity to hit back on 46 minutes.
Beale was again the instigator, dummying his way through a static line to race into the opposition half. But somehow, with five team mates in support against two Crusaders, he took the wrong option to feed Foketi, who in turn should have passed back inside instead of holding on, and was summarily smuggled into touch with relative ease by the scrambling defence.
Cue the ‘Marky Mark’ Nawaqanitawase show.
The Aussie U20’s World Cup star has built a reputation for his fine finishing skills in the fledgling years of his career, but had been afforded precious little room with which to shine in the opening 50 minutes. However, after a couple more penalties allowed the Waratahs to try and forge something off a lineout that had been misfiring up to that point, it was to the 19-year-old that they looked to after an initial maul had been thwarted – and he didn’t disappoint.
Playing with a penalty advantage, Jake Gordon swept the ball infield for a wraparound play with halves partner Harrison, and when the elusive scrumhalf got the ball back he fired it wide for his young winger to do his thing. Faced with four Crusaders, Nawaqanitawase first stepped inside Will Jordan, then back out again to escape his clutches, before diving spectacularly out of the reach of the other three defenders to execute a glorious one-handed put-down in the corner whilst in mid-air. Plenty more of that please.
A terrific conversion from out wide by Harrison made it 24-13, but there was more to come. With the Crusaders building an attack after the restart, a sloppy pass from no.8 Whetu Douglas was plucked from the air by – who else? – Nawaqanitawase, who gleefully ran half the field to rack up a quickfire double, and bring the Waratahs firmly back into the contest. Game on.
However, history also tells us that the Crusaders are never more dangerous than when they are under the pump. And so it proved, Havili tearing a path through the midfield off a lineout to get inside the 22, and several recycles later opening the door for a pop pass from Bryn Hall to send Ennor crashing over from a metre for his second.
That broke the Waratahs’ resistance, and gave the home side the breathing space to flex their attacking muscles even further, which duly resulted in the try of the match with 15 minutes to go. Replacement hooker Codie Taylor tapped to himself from a 22-metre drop-out, and kick-started an exhilarating passage of passes that saw the Crusaders sweep upfield through seven different pairs of hands before Ennor fired the killer ball for Jordan to streak away for his own brace.
Playing catch-up footy in the closing stages, the Tahs were always likely to leave themselves vulnerable at the other end, and the clinical Crusaders took advantage once again, Luke Romano hitting a short ball to power his way through Will Harrison and under the posts.
But the visitor’s didn’t throw in the towel, and got a deserved third try for their efforts in the 78th minute. Mitch Short, on for Jake Gordon, brought plenty of positivity to his role orchestrating proceedings at the back of the ruck. Playing with a penalty advantage, the halfback shifted it out to Beale who found Jed Holloway, and the burly no.8 with soft hands hit the onrushing Alex Newsome on a superb angle to race through for a consolation.
Not the start they wanted obviously, and there’s clearly plenty to work on in terms of their defence and set-piece. But the attacking intent from a Waratahs team still very much in the early stages of their development, offered glimpses of a much brighter future when combinations gel and they hone their execution.
CRUSADERS 43 (Will Jordan 2, Braydon Ennor 2, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Luke Romano tries; David Havili 5 cons, pen) defeated NSW WARATAHS 25 (Mark Nawaqanitawase 2, Alex Newsome tries; Will Harrison 2 cons, 2 pens) HT 24-6 at Trafalgar Park, Nelson
Crusaders: 1. George Bower; 2. Andrew Makalio; 3. Oli Jager; 4. Scott Barrett (c); 5. Mitchell Dunshea; 6. Tom Sanders; 7. Whetu Douglas; 8. Tom Christie; 9. Mitch Drummond; 10. Richie Mo’unga; 11. Leicester Fainga’anuku; 12. Jack Goodhue; 13. Braydon Ennor; 14. Will Jordan; 15. David Havili – Replacements: 16. Codie Taylor; 17. Isileli Tu’ungafasi; 18. Michael Ala’alatoa; 19. Luke Romano; 20. Cullen Grace; 21. Bryn Hall; 22. Brett Cameron; 23. Sevu Reece
NSW Waratahs: 1. Tom Robertson; 2. Robbie Abel; 3. Tetera Faulkner; 4. Tom Staniforth; 5. Rob Simmons (c); 6. Lachlan Swinton; 7. Jed Holloway; 8. Michael Hooper; 9. Jake Gordon; 10. Will Harrison; 11. Mark Nawaqanitawase; 12. Karmichael Hunt; 13. Lalakai Foketi; 14. Alex Newsome; 15. Kurtley Beale – Replacements: 16. Damien Fitzpatrick; 17. Angus Bell; 18. Chris Talakai; 19. Ryan McCauley; 20. Jack Dempsey; 21. Carlo Tizzano; 22. Mitch Short; 23. Jack Maddocks