Waratahs on the brink after worst-ever Super Rugby start
Force captain David Pocock, coach Richard Graham, and their charges are in the only Australian franchise that can feel well-pleased with week four of Super Rugby.
Not renowned for winning close games, the Force upset the far more fancied Waratahs 21-20 at Allianz Stadium, the former Sydney Football Stadium, where the Waratahs have an impressive home record.
But the three other Australian franchises fell by the wayside in the most extraordinary circumstances.
The Queensland Reds, the reigning Super champions, blew a 17-nil lead against the Sharks at Durban to lose 27-22.
Admittedly the Reds lost Mike Harris and Ben Lucas to hamstrings and Digby Ioane to a dangerous tackle, but Ewen McKenzie-coached teams don’t usually bomb a 17-point lead to lose.
The Brumbies were squared away 22-22 on full-time with the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium, until Chief’s benchman Jackson Willison touched down on the final hooter, with Aaron Cruden added the extras to cement a 29-22 win.
Same story with the Rebels. They were squared away 26-26 on full-time with the Cheetahs at AAMI Park, when Cheetahs benchman Piet Van Zyl finished off an 80m move after the final hooter – the 82nd minute to be precise – Johan Goosen slotted the conversion for a 33-26 victory.
There’s a clear message there for four Australian franchises – turn up to play, and do so for 80 minutes. That’s endemic in New Zealand and South African sides.
NSW has the most soul-searching to do. Apart from South African import Sarel Pretorius and centre Berrick Barnes trying to inspire his pedestrian team-mates in the second half, the Waratahs didn’t turn up to play.
Have they no pride in pulling on the blue jersey emblazoned with the waratah?
Officials are trumpeting the return of backrowers Wycliff Palu and Lopeti Timani next week to meet the upbeat Sharks at Allianz.
Forget it, that’s only papering over the cracks. It’s the mindset that’s lacking, not the players.
The Waratahs have the roster the make a genuine noise in this tournament. But not the large number of white-flaggers who ran onto Allianz last Saturday night.
The Reds are a very different proposition, don’t write off them off too quickly, McKenzie will iron out the problems, and he has selection depth.
“Despite the result, it was our best game of the season,” said McKenzie. In the first 25 minutes hooker James Hanson and backrower Scott Higginbotham crossed for tries as the Reds mounted constant pressure playing expansive rugby.
Losing three attacking backs didn’t help the 80-minute cause, and the wake-up call will be heeded, McKenzie will see to that.
So the Reds and Brumbies have suffered their first losses. Next week the Reds meet the Bulls at Loftus, the Brumbies clash with the Highlanders at Canberra Stadium.
As they sit, both the Reds and Brumbies are on 13 points, with the Waratahs on 8, Rebels 6, and Force 5.
The Rebels and Force clash on Friday night at AAMI Park. It’s a short turnaround for the Rebels who played such positive rugby against the Cheetahs, while the Force has the benefit of being on the road as a unit for the week, and are very bouyant after beating the Waratahs for the first time since they entered the Super tournament in 2006.
Unless the Waratahs can find some bottle in a hurry, the men-in-blue could well be fourth in the Australian conference after week five, their season all but finished before it even started.