The final five minutes of the Waratahs’ opening Super Rugby fixture against the Hurricanes felt inevitable and worryingly familiar.
The sequence of events may have been comical had it not been so painful.
Concerningly, this mirco sequence is indicative of a macro pattern that has plagued NSW.
Having just conceded a try to replacement backrower Du’Plessis Kirifi, after a period of sustained territorial and possessive pressure, the Tahs won the ball back immediately off their own kick-off with an exceptional display of counter rucking.
Players identified an opportunity and drove over the ball, allowing the support to win possession rather than use their hands and concede a match-ending penalty.
From the next phase, 30 metres out with just under four minutes remaining, Tolu Latu dropped a sitter from Jake Gordon.
The Waratahs’ scrum was under pressure all night, conceding multiple penalties, yet somehow the shove came and Angus Gardner awarded a penalty to the home side.
You might expect most supporters would have backed Bernard Foley to slot the 78th minute penalty – he has done it in big moments before for both club and country – however, being a Tahs supporter means preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
Despite having kicked five from five on the night to that point, and plenty of evidence to support his big-kick credentials, the miss came as no surprise.
With 40 seconds remaining, Jordie Barrett unleasheed a monster dropout, which Curtis Rona allowed to cross the touchline for a Waratahs lineout 30 metres out from their own line (in his defence, Rona appeared to think the ball would carry into touch on the full and arguably leaving the kick was worth the risk).
At the lineout, Latu – despite his many throwing woes – perfectly hit Jed Holloway at the back, and the Waratahs executed a few good phases. The energy and intent at the breakdown was superb, the type that limits your turnovers.
However, after no more than three phases, the Waratahs ran out of ideas and found themselves losing metres. One-out running, zero organisation and aimless shovel passing saw the Tahs on their own five-metre line as Israel Folau decided the only option, in a two-on-four situation, was a slow, looping pass to Adam Ashely-Cooper – who almost went into touch trying to catch the ball.
Once safely inbounds, Ashley-Cooper was swarmed by three defenders and only one support player, before more men in blue arrived and saved possession.
The next phase, Karmichael Hunt caught the ball at first receiver, beat a defender and for the first time in six phases, the Tahs were over the gain line.
Supporters endured two more ineffective phases, with the players clearly clueless as to what to do, before Foley was caught by the defence on his own.
Four Hurricanes players dove into the ruck, with only Hunt in support, as tired Waratahs players jogged to the breakdown, resigned to the fact the game was over.
As the Canes pile in, they make one mistake – their are hands in the ruck, handing their opponents a lifeline. Foley sliced off 35 metres and Latu again nails the throw in, this time to Hanigan. Still in the air, Isaia Walker-Leawere throws his arms around Hanigan’s shoulder and neck, seeing Gardner immediately award another penalty.
Foley takes another 30 metres, Latu again nails the throw, Hanigan easily beats his opposite into the air, but the ball slips through his hands, dropping into the breadbasket of Ben May, who passes to Dan Coles, who ends the game by booting the ball into touch.
The Hurricanes did about all they could to gift this one to the Waratahs, only outmatched by the latter’s incompetence.
Hunt was a rare bright spot and he will add a lot to this team. It will be fascinating to see the potential of this backline once Beale returns, with Hunt best at 12 – his straight, physical running and hard-hitting defence are major assets in that position.
Beale should go to fullback, with Folau to the wing, which can unlock all of their potential.
On the other hand, it was really bad. The opposition were missing talismanic playmaker Beauden Barrett, as well as being below the standard they would expect of themselves. In 2018, the Hurricanes scored 4.5 tries per game, carried for 497 metres and beat 25 defenders. On the weekend, they scored two tries, carried for 260 metres and beat only 20 defenders.
There was no better time to chalk up a rare win against a Kiwi team – it is unlikely the Waratahs will get another chance like that this year.
There are too many passengers in sky blue. Ned Hanigan is not a competent Super Rugby player, Tolu Latu undermines his potential with ill discipline, and the scrum is poor. The team seems to lack an identity and gameplan.
Fortunately, no other Australian team is likely to rattle off wins against the teams from across the ditch, so when it comes down to the Australian conference, the losing bonus point is likely not a bad outcome.
It’s all really quite sad.