Reds back in contention, but Waratahs need a cleanout
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The Bulls celebrate their match winning try as a dejected Waratahs look on during their Super Rugby match (AAP Image/Dean Lewins)
The Reds’ 42-27 win over the Chiefs was a mothers day of a contest. One of the great Super Rugby matches.
The result tells us that if the Reds make the finals they can do some damage in the play-off games. To be realistic the Reds have to get into the finals by winning the Australian conference.
There are seven teams (aside from the Brumbies) currently in front of them on the table. Three of those teams – the Bulls, the Chiefs and the Stormers – will be in the finals.
The likelihood is with the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Highlanders and Sharks all ahead of the Reds and accumulating points, there will be only one Australian team in the finals – the winner of the Australian Conference.
The Rebels helped all the teams in the hunt for tournament honours, especially the Brumbies and the Reds, when they easily defeated the Crusaders in Melbourne.
The Crusaders, though, have the Blues at home, a bye and the Highlanders at home before the big break. There are at least eight points here for them, you would think.
The Brumbies play the Hurricanes in Wellington (a difficult assignment), the Reds in Canberra and the Rebels in Melbourne, which no longer look as easy as a couple of weeks ago. The Brumbies might struggle to get four points out of all of this.
The Reds play the Lions at Brisbane (five points in the bag, I suggest), the Brumbies at home, then get a bye. You would think there are at least nine points here.
So the contest for the Australian Conference winner is very much alive between the Reds and the Brumbies.
The Conference winners have an automatic first-up home final. This home ground advantage is often the difference between a strong victory and an awkward, disappointing defeat. At Christchurch last weekend, the Reds conceded 17 penalties in going down to the Crusaders. Admittedly this was from a New Zealand referee.
At their home ground of Suncorp Stadium, with South African referee Marius Jonker, they conceded one penalty in the first half! The Chiefs had five ruled against them.
As well, the referee and touch judges totally missed identifying Luke Morahan as the perpetrator of a dump tackle on Sonny Bill Williams, even though the tackle was out in the open and right by the sideline. Jonker identified the tackle as a yellow card. But because the culprit was not identified (why didn’t they go to the TMO?) the Reds kept their fullback on the field.
Morahan made two, possibly three, last-ditch tackles preventing Chiefs tries in the minutes he should have been cooling his heels on the sideline.
Controversies like this are part of big sport. The fact is the Reds were too good for the Chiefs after they worked out a weakness in defending the pick and drive.
The match was in three phases. Phase one was an early and surprising advantage to the Reds. Surprising because the Chiefs were number two on the table and the Reds number 10. The Reds worked a try against the run of play with Mike Harris intercepting and racing away for the try line.
Then the Chiefs piled on three tries in eight minutes and the match, at 22 Chiefs – Reds 8 looked as good as over.
Two things happened to change everything. Richard Kahui went off after making another break-out suffering from a possible dislocated shoulder. The Chiefs backs, especially the combination of Sonny Bill Williams and Kahui, never looked as dangerous again in the match. Then Aaron Cruden fielded a long kick-off safely. Jonker immediately ordered a penalty against the Chiefs for shepherding.
Unfortunately, the television coverage did not show the incident. It looked to be a hard call because Cruden had plenty of time to make his catch.
What proved a brilliant decision by James Horwill (which I thought was wrong because I believe you should take the easy points) saw the Reds kicking for touch and going for the try. After some intense play on the Chiefs try line, Ben Lucas scuttled across and Harris converted. 22-8 had become 22-15.
This was the beginning of phase two in the match, and the decisive phase. After half-time the Reds won their kick-off and the forwards picked and drove nearly 40m to score a converted try. 22-all. The decision in the dressing rooms at half-time to attack the fringes of the ruck was particularly smart.
The Chiefs did not have an answer to the tactic until they brought young Sam Cane on late in the match to counter the irresistible Liam Gill, a future Wallaby great and a better prospect in my opinion than David Pocock. Throughout the match Gill slowed down the Chiefs ball. And three times when the Chiefs were inside the Reds 22 and relentlessly pushing on to the try line, Gill pilfered the ball and saved the day.
After the second half opening assault by the Red, the Chiefs completely folded. The Reds piled on the points and put themselves into an unassailable position.
In the last 15 minutes or so, the Chiefs tried to come back. They made plenty of breaks but their finishing was poor.
The result, a clear victory to the Reds, was an accurate indication of the total flow of the game.
The Reds played in front of a crowd of 36,479 spectators.
On Friday night, the Waratahs attracted 17,000 spectators to see them go down to a Bulls side that looked brilliant in shocking pink and played well within themselves to win 27-24, three tries to two.
Once again it was an errant kick towards the end of the match gifting the ball to the opposition which turned over possession and allowed the Bulls to force an error, then score a close-range try to win the match.
I said at the beginning of the season I was predicting for the first time the Waratahs would not win the tournament. I did this because coach Michael Foley, before the season started, went on interminably about the new ‘kicking attack’ game the Waratahs were going to bring to their play.
I argued at the time that you can’t score points when the opposition has the ball or is given the ball. And so it has come to pass.
The Waratahs need a clean-out of their board, administration, coaching and playing staff. The public has given up on them, as the small crowds suggest. There were times only a few years ago when the average crowd for the Waratahs was over 30,000.
The Waratahs have not developed any outstanding must-watch, match-winning players like Kurtley Beale since… Kurtley Beale. They lost Beale to the Rebels. Remarkably, Beale has now developed an all-round number 10 game at Melbourne that he never had playing for the Waratahs.
Supporters of Foley, who seems to be a genial fellow, say that he needs at least one more year to show his stuff. But he was an important part of the failed Chris Hickey regime. Hickey coined the ‘winning ugly’ phrase, but it was reported that it was Foley rather than Hickey who ran the practice sessions. So we know what he can and cannot deliver as a coach.
It was Foley, too, who was behind the recruitment of the old-timers, Rocky Elsom and Adam Ashley-Cooper, and the loss of players like Ben Mowen (who Jake White immediately made captain of the Brumbies). Mowen was made redundant because Elsom was coming to the Waratahs.
This time last year, early May 2011, I wrote an email to a person of some power in the Waratahs establishment making these points: “There are constant rumours that Michael Foley is going to take over as head coach. This will destroy the Waratahs brand for the years he is in the position … His views on rugby tend towards the ‘win ugly’ method … There needs to be a clean out of the coaching staff and – in my opinion – get rid of a number of senior players who will not buy into the expansive, attractive and winning sort of game the Reds are playing …”
Clearly this advice has not been taken. It took an intervention by the Australian Rugby Union to clean out the old Reds establishment and put in place a new administration to build the new Reds. The results on and off the playing field are impressive.
The Waratahs franchise has access to the most number of players, the best club rugby tournament and has the whole of Sydney to gather in its spectators.
To have a team that has never won the Super Rugby tournament – and will fail again this year – while attracting smaller crowds than the Rebels in Melbourne is totally unacceptable.
Or should be unacceptable. If the board of the Waratahs, a seemingly self-elected oligarchy, won’t institute a clean-out, then let’s hope the ARU will make an intervention. Something drastic has to be done about the sick man of Australian rugby, the New South Wales Waratahs.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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