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Does the Tahs' opening 30 against the Crusaders offer them any hope?

How far can the Tahs go? (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
13th May, 2018
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1759 Reads

It’s hard to know what to make of the Waratahs’ near miss against the all-conquering Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday night.

No doubt coach Darryl Gibson will hold that opening 30 minutes up to his players as the blueprint to beat any team in the competition. In a game of three thirds, the Tahs played sublimely to their strengths to pile on four tries and 29 points in the first half hour.

Much of it involved attacking talisman Israel Folau’s peerless aerial ability that led directly to two of those tries, one of which he scored himself.

Israel Folau looks on

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The Tahs’ pack were also well up for the challenge in the opening stanza, all bustly and niggly industry to dominate their strangely subdued All Black-laden opposites, who the visitors robbed of possession 11 times in the first 40.

Replacement hooker Hugh Roach, called into action early following an injury to Damien Fitzpatrick and lock Ned Hanigan, epitomised their team’s efforts up front.

Roach was a whirling dervish, displaying the requisite aggression demanded of a man sporting a haircut of such attitude.

Hanigan was typically busy cleaning out rucks, getting up time and again for tackles and generally wringing good worth out of an anatomy that’s shorter and lighter than most locks at this level.

Used on the blindside by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, Hanigan brings to mind former New Zealand Test cricketer Bob Cunis, of whom a TV commentator once said, “with a name like that you would expect Cunis to be neither one thing or another”.

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The Tahs’ cause was helped by a virulent case of the dropsies that had afflicted the Crusaders’ backs who coughed up eight handling errors to the visitor’s one in the first half.

To be fair many were forced by the keen Tahs’ line speed that undid a number of promising Crusader plays.

Unfortunately for Gibson’s men, they were unable to build on either their brilliant start or their score for the remaining 55 minutes of the match, that included five minutes of first half injury time, while their opposites staged the biggest comeback in Super Rugby history.

The last ten minutes of the first half were about as violent a momentum swing as you are ever likely to see with the Cantabrians scoring three tries, two of which were converted, to trail by just ten at the break.

Their spree was sparked by a five-pointer to big prop Joe Moody, seconds after he had blatantly taken Kurtley Beale out of play with an elbow to the throat.

The nasty bit of foul play should have resulted in a red card to Moody on his first game back from a lengthy injury lay off. However, it was completely missed by Kiwi ref Ben O’Keeffe and his all-New Zealand team of match officials.

To rub salt into what was soon to be a gaping wound, the Tahs lost Nick Phipps to a yellow card for what was, by comparison, an udderly (sorry) innocuous ruck infringement a few minutes later.

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Phipps was followed in the naughty chair by giant winger Taqele Naiyaravoro 12 minutes into the second half for slapping the ball from a likely looking Crusaders attack to leave the New South Welshmen battling 20 minutes of the prolonged resurgence with just 14 men.

They were mind-fart acts of ill-discipline that cost the visitors dearly, for sure.

The problem was that O’Keeffe and his sideline crew were simply not as vigilant in pulling the Crusaders up for their indiscretions and the inconsistency sent Rod Kafer, Stephen Hoiles and co in the Fox Sports studio apopylectic in post-match.

Fair enough.

Apart from the Moody miss, O’Keeffe also seemed to wrongly ping the Tahs for a knock on at the ruck that looked like it was caused by Crusaders openside Matt Todd with four minutes to go.

With seconds remaining NSW No.8 Michael Wells appeared to be the victim of a tip tackle that would have given Bernard Foley a long range shot to win the game, had it not been completely dismissed/missed.

The best refs are the ones you barely notice but unfortunately O’Keeffe had anything other than an inconspicuous night.

Good match officials are just like good players, in that they suffer the odd bad game. As the son of former top provincial ref Peter, Ben has refereeing in his blood and is widely viewed as a good up and comer. He’ll no doubt learn from the experience, but too late for the Tahs, their fans and pay TV commentators.

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It’s doubtful there was any agenda to his decision-making. Still, it’s just not a good look when the home side appears to have home refs turn a blind eye to their infringing.

While doing nothing to stop bad decisions being made, neutral refs for inter-country Super matches would at least stop accusations of bias.

In the final analysis, once poked from their slumber, the Crusaders big bears up front were just too much for the visiting pack who they eventually scrummed, mauled and driven into the AMI dirt.

It seemed apt that the Crusaders first edged their noses in front in the 69th minute via a penalty try for repeated Waratah scrum infringements.

Curtis Rona

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

The turnaround coincided with visiting ten Richie Mo’unga finally realising it wasn’t such a good idea to kick anywhere near Folau in general play.

While they’ll be bitterly disappointed by their inability to convert such a rampant start into a win, the Tahs will feel consoled by the fact they were able to dominate the defending champs for the best part of a half. Building such a mammoth lead that it took the vaunted opposition a record-breaking effort and most of the remaining match to finally reel in.

It will give Gibson and his skipper Michael Hooper a glimmer of hope that if their team manage to finish top of the Aussie conference they might just be able to find a way against the top kiwi and South African teams that they will inevitably have to play away if they make it to the real pointy end of the comp.

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Hooper said as much post-match:
“We can stack points on quickly and play a really exciting brand of rugby and put a top team under pressure.

“We know what we’re capable of and it’s disappointing we let that one slip.”

But that’s now the 39th match in a row Aussie teams have slipped up against kiwi opponents.

With the Reds’ historic loss to the Sunwolves in Tokyo leaving the only Australian joy at the weekend coming from the Rebels overcoming the Brumbies in a scrappy derby in Canberra, glimmers of hope are all rugby fans in this country can realistically cling to at the moment.