As part of a desperate bid to reel in the leader George Gregan at the top of the Investec Legends tipping pool (and before you say it, no, I don’t know how I got in there either), I put my money on the Waratahs to finally beat the Crusaders in Christchurch and break a run of seven straight losses.
Unfortunately, I was wrong, Gregan was right and it appears that I’ll continue to ripen on the vine – “early ripe, early rotten” as they say.
The Waratahs meanwhile, continue to search for answers after extending their run of Crusaders losses to eight.
It was interesting to note that the tippers in the Legends pool who had actually won Super championships – Brumbies Joe Roff, George Gregan, Steve Larkham, Rod Kafer and former Auckland Blue Sean Fitzpatrick – all picked the Crusaders to win.
More interesting were the margins.
Kafer (ever the analyst and expecting a tight match), picked the Crusaders by only 3 points, but Larkham, Gregan, Fitzpatrick and Roff were the top 4 margin picks on the Crusaders side with splits of 12, 15, 16 and 20 respectively. They clearly remember just how hard it is to triumph over the Canterbury farmers on their own patch.
The Waratahs too are building an uncomfortable bank of nearly-but-not-quite memories against the Crusaders and must be wondering what they have to do to win one.
The frustration was evident on Phil Waugh’s face during the end of match interview – he did an admirable job of being congratulatory and making all the right noises, but the tone in his voice betrayed a strong desire to let fly with an exasperated, profane roar, particularly since the Waratahs looked in control after their 28 phase try midway through the second half.
Unfortunately they were brought to earth by a combination of Crusader composure, their own mistakes, some refereeing quirks and plain old bad luck. The search for a turning point reveals several possible candidates, but no one big moment. The Crusaders just hung in and ground out a win – again.
The 45th minute stabbing penalty into the post by Berrick Barnes certainly looked like it had changed the course of the match, and probably contributed to the later decision to go to the line after a Thorne high tackle penalty instead of kicking for goal. Ultimately though, that lineout and the subsequent 28-phase try was a better result, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad.
Luke Burgess’ sloppy passing also put the Waratahs under pressure on a couple of occasions, notably a bounced pass in the 47th minute, and also a horror pass to no-one which put Beale under enormous pressure, and which was only relieved by a lucky penalty for Waldrom coming in the side of the subsequent ruck.
That said, Burgess was an integral part of the Waratahs try, driving and cajoling his forwards and resisting the temptation to go wide before they had earned the right up the middle, so he had the odd praiseworthy moment.
Perhaps the closest thing to a major turning point was the loss of Wycliffe Palu for the Waratahs combined with the shifting of gears brought about by the introduction of Thomas Waldrom for the Crusaders.
Both Palu and Waldrom showed the value of a big, hard-running number 8 in modern Super rugby (on that note, is Stephen Hoiles on borrowed time at the Brumbies?). Waldrom at one point was averaging 10-12 metres per carry, which, when it happens 7 or 8 times in a half, gives a team plenty of momentum.
With the match still in the balance, Sekope Kepu was penalised for a scrum collapse and Dan Carter was gifted 3 points. Not only did the penalty bring the Crusaders further back into the match, but it highlighted an odd tendency for several referees in the Super 14 to fiddle with the scrum call – which makes it difficult for front rowers.
Everyone knows that the first thing a front row tries to do is time the hit to gain ascendancy. This is largely about timing the referees call.
So imagine the difficulty if one week you have a referee calling “Crouch-Touch-Pause-Engage” and the next you have a referee calling “Crouch-Touch” and then pausing before he says “Pause-Engage”. The sooner referees grasp the simple concept that the Pause takes place during the time that the word “Pause” is said, and there is no need for a separate actual pause, the better off we’ll all be.
But back to the turning point theme, and if we’re looking for individual player turning points, the guy who has most cause to grizzle his way home is Kurtley Beale.
First, after he (quote) “monstered” Fotuali’i (who ever thought they’d hear that adjective used about a Kurtley Beale tackle?), and was unjustly penalised for not getting to his feet, when the replay clearly showed he had not only got to his feet, but had also released the tackled player.
Later in the 67th minute, a simple pause and play on the trusty IQ, showed that Fotuali’i had the ball in his hands from a ruck and Beale was well behind the last man’s feet, before he darted forward and secured an intercept which would have undoubtedly been a try to the Waratahs. Unfortunately in real time it did look as though Beale couldn’t possibly have made up the distance legally, and he was denied.
The final turning point was Rob Horne turning the ball over from a promising Waratahs breakout, before the Crusaders scored the winning try through Fotuali’i – although the grounding left something to be desired.
The Laws state that the ball is either to be “held in the hand or hands, or the arm or arms, and touched to the ground (downward pressure not required)” or “whilst the ball is on the ground, it may be pressed down with the hand/hands, arm/arms or the front of the torso”.
Neither of these scenarios appeared to apply, but the try was awarded and to get hung up on the technicality would be to ignore the Crusaders marvellous ability to simultaneously absorb and create pressure.
If all this sounds like sour grapes, it shouldn’t.
These are the type of incidents which happen in almost every game, against every team. They’re measured in millimetres, and in most matches the margin isn’t tight enough for them to matter.
In this one though, they cumulatively edged the Waratahs out of the contest. Against any other team, they probably wouldn’t have mattered, but against the Crusaders, they were crucial. It’s that tight between these two.
Where to from here for the Waratahs? There are questions to be answered.
High on the list is who the first choice kicker should be. Barnes or Halangahu? In recent weeks Barnes has struggled with form generally, and given that the Waratahs are generally a pretty close run team, the pressure of kicking for them mustn’t help much, since every second goal kick has the game hanging on it.
Halangahu on the other hand seems unconcerned by the responsibility and his kicking has got the Tahs back on track a few times lately. He must be the first choice from here on in.
Next is what to do about Luke Burgess? His form has improved slightly, but 3-4 loose passes per game, every game, doesn’t exactly instill confidence in a team. His shocker to nobody in the second half against the Crusaders could easily have equalled a try which would have killed the Waratahs off much earlier.
It’s worth noting that the great winning Super 14 sides have had a halfback who was dominant, threatening and full of command.
George Gregan at the Brumbies, Justin Marshall at the Crusaders and Fourie du Preez at the Bulls all have driven, cajoled and carried their teams to victory.
Seen in this light, Burgess just doesn’t seem to be a dominant enough figure to take his team to a winning Super 14 season. Certainly it is hard to imagine Marshall, Gregan or du Preez having as many off moments as Burgess has recently and if the Waratahs are to fire, he needs to lift another whole level.
Lastly, who will replace Palu, who looks to be gone for the season? He is a massive loss, as if anyone needed to be told. The extra metres he gains after making contact with the defensive line are like so much gold dust, turning the defenders and getting his backline on the front foot.
For all the Waratahs depth, they don’t have a ready made replacement at 8. Ben Mowen will probably get the nod, but Dave Dennis could also handle the role. What is certain is that a Mowen/Dennis/Waugh combo is light years from anything that has Palu in it.
Can the Waratahs win the championship?
On current form you’d probably say no, for four reasons. One, they have so far lost to the Bulls, Stormers and Crusaders, the other teams likely to figure in the top four.
Two, they have a bye coming up, which will compromise their current position on the ladder unless the other big sides falter badly that week.
Three, aside from big wins against the competition laggards the Lions and Cheetahs, they have not won a game by more than 7 points this season. And four, they will need to do it all without their most dominant forward in Palu.
That said, winning the Super 14 is a little like tipping. If you’re in the mix when the finals roll around, anything can happen. But the Waratahs and I both need a few unexpected results and a few bonus points as well if we’re going to lift the silverware.
As I learnt on the weekend, smart tippers like Gregan and champion teams like the Crusaders are tough to haul back once they’re in front .