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The Wrap: Waratahs flick the confidence switch as Australian conference heats up

Rob Simmons has gone from playing for Queensland to becoming a key member of the Waratahs. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
Expert
18th March, 2018
223

Confidence is a wonderful thing. When it presents itself it can turn an ordinary rugby player into a world beater, and an embattled team – expected to fall away after a punishing travel schedule – into a fleet-footed, swarming unit where every pass sticks and conversions rain from the sideline just for fun.

Any notion that the Waratahs would be affected by their punishing travel schedule was emphatically blown away by a 22-minute spell of fizzing, confident rugby, where 38 points were added without reply.

The Waratahs were hotter than the unseasonably stifling air that swirled around Allianz Stadium, which forced officials to impose a hydration break for the players midway through each half, and which was light years removed from the glorious, romantic snowflakes that kissed down on grand slam Ireland twelve hours earlier.

At 20-3 in the shadows of half-time, the Rebels had as little inkling of what was to come as did the home crowd, most of whom had already resigned themselves to another frustrating loss from their team.

The Waratahs comeback started accidentally, a little bit of good fortune going a long way for centre Lalakai Foketi, his speculative grubber opening up the Rebels backfield on the ricochet. It was an important score, keeping the Waratahs in touch, 20-10 at halftime.

What followed after the break was a period where the Rebels didn’t get their hands on the ball – or when they did they either spilled it or kicked it away. The Waratahs kicked too, but mostly for Israel Folau to contest and win, and from there to tear the tiring Rebels’ defence to shreds.

Post-match, I asked Michael Hooper about what was it that flicked the confidence switch for the players, and he unhesitatingly pointed to Bernard Foley’s smart kicking which, coupled with Folau’s aerobatics, provided the forward pack with a huge uplift.

Factor two was the accumulation of points, from penalties at first, and then another lift from the realisation that the side was consistently moving forward, that Foley and Kurtley Beale were now in control of the game, and the passes were starting to stick.

Folau Beale

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

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And stick they did. The first three tries all went to players running in support after the ball was turned back on the inside – a factor Rebels coach Dave Wessels indicated afterwards was a sign of a lack of defensive intensity from his side.

The favoured channel after that was the left wing, with Bryce Hegarty and the big Scottish Fijian Taqele Naiyarovoro (twice) streaking in for tries, beneficiaries of slick distribution from their inside men.

Indeed, Wessels acknowledged the work of Folau in sparking the forward momentum, but identified the winning/losing of the game in their failure to close down Foley and Beale, ceding the dominance in the midfield that was theirs for the first 38 minutes.

For his part, Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson pointed to his side becoming more patient with the ball, as well as trumpeting his teams’ conditioning – allowing them to perform so strongly despite the short turnaround from their overseas tour.

And yes, just to prove why Super Rugby coaches are paid the big bucks because they’re the smartest men in the game, Gibson really did offer the observation that this “was a game of two halves!”

Indications are that he will be in no hurry to shift Folau from the wing – enjoying the spoils of a comprehensive knockout victory over the critics who rushed to criticise his selection. He also has an ace up his sleeve in Naiyarovoro – noticeable leaner and sharper this year – who will prove an absolute handful for tiring second-half defences as the competition progresses.

The Rebels will take plenty out of the game – their first-half dominance was well earned, but they now know that, if they don’t have the possession to keep playing ‘their game’, they need to shift gears to stay with an opposition who is playing theirs.

Wessels – a man with a keen eye for a stat – correctly identified that Australian sides haven’t made a habit of winning four Super Rugby games in succession, and to that extent, this setback will be taken with perspective, starting with close analysis of his own preparation during a week which, in retrospect, didn’t go as perfectly as planned.

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Dave Wessels Super Rugby 2017

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The air-conditioned luxury of the media box at GIO Stadium in Canberra proved a far more agreeable location than Sunday afternoon’s heat box, a balmy Saturday evening providing a perfect stage for a match that never reached the heights the conditions deserved.

The Brumbies were bright and enterprising early, dominating field position, although familiar skill execution errors crept in towards the back end of the first half and stunted their progress. They were fortunate that the Sharks – boasting quality players across the park – never became more than the sum of those parts.

One feels that there is a break out performance lurking somewhere around the corner for the Sharks – for Rebels fans, hopefully not at AAMI Stadium next Friday.

The Brumbies did what they needed to do – win by 24-17 – but something more than earnest efficiency and quality goal-kicking from Wharenui Hawera will be required to both capture the hearts of their fans and win the competition.

With the Reds grafting a hard-fought but well-deserved win in Buenos Aries, the Australian Conference has tightened up and has an enticing feel to it, with all four Australian sides still well in the hunt and all with good reason to feel confident about forging ahead in the coming weeks.

Samu Kerevi

(Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

The Rebels top the conference, they and the Reds both sitting on three wins, with the Waratahs and Brumbies close behind on two wins, both of those sides with momentum.

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That the Sunwolves only fell to the Lions 38-40, away from home, is also a reminder that the conference isn’t all about Australia, and that no side can afford to take their eye off the ball at any point.

City Hall haters will run their agenda regardless, but the fact that nobody today has any idea how the Australian Conference will finish is exactly what Rugby Australia were required to deliver by SANZAAR’s broadcast partners.

For an organisation that gets plenty wrong, it was a smart move by SANZAAR to keep Australian and New Zealand franchises separated during the early stages of the competition. Momentum has been allowed to build and fans of all four franchises have genuine reason to believe that they can top the conference.

For this week at least, all four Australian coaches are on high ground – the only loser, Wessels, already well stocked with credits.

Yes, things will get hotter for the Australian sides as the crossover matches kick in, but in a competition that has already thrown up plenty of surprise results this season, the safest prediction to make at this stage is that there will be many more twists and turns to come.

That’s a comment made with complete confidence of someone who has just bet his house on Folau going up for a high ball and coming down with it. The ultimate no-brainer.