Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers hailed the NSW Waratahs’ newfound steel after Berrick Barnes and man of the moment Israel Folau conspired to sink his side and keep their Super Rugby finals hopes alive on Saturday night.
The stingy Stormers threatened to suffocate Folau and his Waratahs teammates until the classy fullback stormed onto Barnes’s season-saving pass to cross three minutes from fulltime and clinch a tense 21-15 victory at Allianz Stadium.
Folau has bagged seven tries in 11 games since switching codes and continues to make an irresistible claim for a Wallabies debut against the British and Irish Lions next month.
The Stormers had done their homework on him and warily double-marked the competition’s leading metres-maker at scrum time, but he was still the most dangerous attacking threat.
Apart from scoring the winner, Folau featured in NSW’s only other try and also saved one at the other end in yet another man-of-the-match performance from Australia’s youngest-ever rugby league international.
“He’s getting better and better,” de Villiers said.
“Quality players always seemed to be involved whenever they’re under the pump and whenever a big play is needed and he was there to do that tonight.
“So credit must go to him and hopefully we can keep it in union.”
Barnes was another hero for the Waratahs after making his comeback from wrist surgery and being thrown into the playmaking hot seat with 17 minutes remaining and his side desperately trying to crack the Stormers’ stonewall defence.
After delivering a sloppy forward pass with his first touch after replacing five-eighth Bernard Foley, Barnes atoned by putting Folau over and then nailing the crucial conversion attempt and slotting a long-range penalty goal after the bell.
Folau’s try vindicated NSW captain Dave Dennis’s gutsy decision to go for a decisive try with the clock winding down rather than kick a penalty and hope to work for another against the competition’s most vaunted defensive unit.
De Villiers, a World Cup winner with the Springboks, lauded the new-age Waratahs as a special team in the making.
“This team is playing for something bigger than just the team or just rugby games,” he said.
“They’re much more committed to the cause and to the team. I won’t say it’s a better team than in the past. I won’t say they’ve got much better players, but the willingness to do well and to play for each other and to get results is there.”
Five penalty goals from fullback Joe Pietersen, including four in the second half after the Stormers trailed 8-3 at the break, seemed set to scupper the Waratahs’ playoff hopes.
After running in 11 tries last week against the Southern Kings, the Tahs could only manage to crack the Stormers defence once in 77 minutes before Folau’s late strike – and that came from a crossfield kick over the top from Foley, which Folau knocked back for Cam Crawford to touch down for his fifth try in as many starts in Super Rugby.