The scoreline at the SFS on Friday was Waratahs 33 – Blues 12, a five tries to two thrashing that could have been ever bigger if some luck had run the way of the Waratahs.
And leaving the ground, there were smiles on the faces of the true believers – a welcome change from the stunned and angry looks that usually go with a Waratahs crowd streaming out of the ground after their team has suffered another dismal loss.
Look, alright, I know this was a trial match, okay. The Blues left most of their starting pack back in Auckland. They lost the first five penalties. And the match was played in Sydney, not in Auckland.
But the fact of the matter is that I’ve watched the Waratahs since 1996 present sides that were poorly selected, over-trained and under-coached and were palpably unfit.
As a result, one of the greatest of all the provincial sides in world rugby, a side that has defeated the All Blacks more times than Scotland, Ireland and Argentina combined (they’ve never done it!), has not won a single Super Rugby title.
What one can say right now, after Friday’s trial match, is that the Waratahs, finally, look like the real deal. They are playing traditional Waratahs rugby, the rugby that led to the side defeating the 1937 Springboks, the ‘greatest side ever to leave New Zealand’, in the mud at the SCG.
True Waratahs rugby is the Randwick game when the team was famous, successful and the hatching ground of brilliant Wallabies with their glorious ‘Galloping Greens’ game. This game was based on tough, uncompromising forwards (think Simon Poidevin) and skilful, quick (of feet and head) backs (think Ken Catchpole, Mark Ella and David Campese).
In the glory days of the 1980s, Michael Cheika was one of those tough and uncompromising forwards. He appears to have coached some of this old Randwick mongrel into his Waratahs pack.
And the backline he presented towards the end of the trial match looked and played like one of those great Galloping Greens backlines: Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale (playing like the cunning and occasionally dazzling Lloyd Walker at inside centre), Adam Ashley-Cooper, Alofa Alofa and Peter Betham on the wings, and Israel Folau at fullback.
The Blues just could not hold this backline. And I reckon few other sides in the 2014 Super Rugby tournament will be able to, either.
Cheika looks determined to play Folau at fullback, and his play under the high ball (he took one ‘Up there Cazaly’ leaping catch), his bursts after coming into the line and even his kicking indicated that fullback is his position.
After the match Cheika praised the work of Beale at fly half. Personally, I thought Beale, as usual, over-played his hand as the pivot. Bernard Foley, though, was simply outstanding.
My guess is that Cheika is trying to keep Beale’s confidence up and that he will field a Foley/Beale five-eighths combination. Certainly the backline purred like a Rolls Royce engine with these two working together as distributors.
This Galloping Waratahs game requires a really fit side. And on Friday night, the side showed that the hard work of running up the Coogee Steps seems to be paying dividends. The side looks like the best presented Waratahs side since… since before 1996.
Winning the Super Rugby rugby tournament requires a two-staged effort before the finals are played. First, a side really needs to win its conference. This gives it the home ground advantage for its first final.
Second, a side needs to win the second or preferably first-highest number of tournament points. This gives the side a good chance of having a home grand final.
The most likely local side that stands in the way of the Waratahs achieving this are the Queensland Reds. And on Saturday night the Reds showed their quality by defeating the Chiefs, who are going for a three-peat, 31-20 in front of 7,438 spectators at Toowoomba Sports Ground.
This win, like that of the Waratahs, is an impressive achievement even if several of the Chiefs’ All Blacks were left back in Hamilton.
The Reds have got an invigorated, confident (too confident, perhaps?) Quade Cooper trying to recreate the magic of 2011.
But, unlike the Waratahs with their massive pack, the Reds have a relatively small pack which might find the going tough in the later parts of the tournament. And outside of Cooper, they do not seem to have a killer back or backs capable of ripping defences to shreds – again, unlike the Waratahs.
There is another matter, too, that could tell against the Reds and that is the matter of the coach, Richard Graham.
I think it is true to say that in the top echelons of Australian rugby, there is not the same high regard for Graham as there is, say, for Cheika. Certainly, Graham’s stint at the Western Force was less than stellar.
Against that, Queensland is becoming the new powerhouse of Australian rugby, displacing NSW. This is rather like what has happened with rugby league. The QRU now has 26,000 members and a target of 50,000, and an enthusiastic home crowd that that on most weekends exceeds that of the NRL’s Broncos.
To round out a promising weekend for the Australian franchises, the Rebels defeated the Hurricanes 24-22.
It is true that the New Zealand teams are usually slow starters early on in the trial matches and in the opening rounds of the Super Rugby tournament. While the Australian teams are preparing for the next year’s tournament, giving them many months of preparation, most of the New Zealand players are contesting their provincial ITM Cup.
So we need to be a bit careful about the results of the trial matches when New Zealand teams are involved.
But you can report only what you see. And what I saw at the SFS was a Waratahs side that looked to me like the real deal.
So is this the season, finally, for the Waratahs to win a Super Rugby tournament?