The Waratahs suffered a gutting late defeat that has given their top four hopes a huge dent, falling behind the Hurricanes for the first time of their Super Rugby Pacific clash with just five minutes to play at Leichhardt Oval.
The Tahs blew a 15-0 halftime lead and matters got even worse as Wallabies centre Isaia Perese was replaced with a knee injury and returning veteran Paddy Ryan received a red card in the dying stages of the Canes 22-18 win.
Their victory was set up by an incredible performance from Ardie Savea in the second half, and a bold move by Hurricanes coach Jason Holland after his side was reeling in the first half.
“It feels like it got away from us,” said Tahs skipper Jake Gordon. “We controlled possession in the first half, they came out of the blocks early in the second half and we didn’t control that. We also had our chances in the second half.
“We’re working hard for each other. Last year they scored 64 against us. To hold them to 22 is a step in the right direction.”
The Waratahs’ first half dominance could have barely been more complete, especially in the opening 20 minutes, as a packed and raucous hill in the suburban inner west marvelled at the blue waves pinning back their Kiwi visitors.
With 18 minutes gone the Tahs had an incredible 94 percent possession and territory on the back of a crushing performance by their scrum, yet had just three points to show for it before Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco claimed the first try completing a ruck move after sustained pressure.
While that try was down to the forward dominance, the next, on 35 minutes, was all flair and highlighted the skills of Perese, whose injury will have Wallabies coach Dave Rennie anxious. Stan Sport reported that it was a possible medial cruciate ligament injury – not as serious as an anterior cruciate ligament -n but still an injury that takes on average six weeks to heal and leaves him in doubt of returning for the rest of SRP.
Perese’s burst down the left was impressive but his no look inside pass that set up former Sevens star Dylan Pietsch up for a try, having earlier had one disallowed.
“That’s a special piece of play from a special player, Izzy Perese,” said Morgan Turinui on the Stan Sport coverage. “Absolute class … a marquee moment in a big time game.”
“That is just naughty,” added a swooning former Wallaby back Drew Mitchell.
The Hurricanes conceded five scrum penalties in the half and were in danger of having a prop sent to the bin when Hurricanes’ coach Jason Holland acted decisively. He dragged starting props Xavier Numia and Tyrel Lomax and at halftime hooker Asafo Aumua joined them on the naughty step.
The transformation, with Dane Coles at hooker and Tevita Mafileo and Owen Franks either side of him, was instant.
Tahs coach Darren Coleman warned of a second half backlash and it came immediately, with Ardie Savea switching on a light and powering the visitors forward. Less than two minutes into the half and Mafileo crossed for his first Super Rugby try.
Savea and Jordie Barrett were quiet in the first half with the Canes scrum in all sorts but started to flourish with a more stable platform.
“He’s enraged, he’s taking it as a personal affront that his team’s behind,” Turinui said.
Soon after another Savea bust gave the Canes momentum and Bailyn Sullivan crossed in the right corner. Barrett pushed his conversion attempt wide leaving the scores locked.
Ben Donaldson, a No.10 starter earlier this year before an injury and fine run of form from Tane Edmed, came on after 61 and calmly kicked a 67th minute penalty to edge the Tahs to a three point lead. With eight minutes to go, he might have taken another shot but the Tahs kicked for touch.
The chance came to nothing and the Canes surged forward and the Tahs were scrambling in desperation.
Ardie Savea, beaten and bruised, came up with the massive play, ploughing over with five to play.
“Of course it’s Ardie Savea,” Turinui said in commentary. “He’s dragged and pushed his team back in this game. He was on haunches then came alive. He refuses to be stopped and takes three players with him.”
“He’s an exceptional player and exceptional leader,” Mitchell added.
Still, it was galling for the Tahs who with five minutes remaining were in fourth on the live ladder – and ended the game in sixth.
Just before the Canes’ winning try, Turinui summed it up.
“They’re an easy team to support at the moment, the Waratahs, because all the things that don’t require talent they do exceptionally well,” said Turinui.
“They chase kicks , they fight for every moment, they get back on their feet and find a role for their team. This last six minute period is about maturity and excellence of execution.” That’s exactly where they fell short.
Barrett was also exceptional in the second half, drifting back to fullback to get his hands on the ball more and take control of the game, as the Canes missed the spark of injured TJ Perenara.
“A couple of times he received kicks and there was no way he was going to kick the ball back – he sparked, along with Ardie Savea, the comeback, and was brilliant,” said Tim Horan.
Coleman said the result was a reality check for his team.
“A bit disappointing, disheartening, when they went up a notch we just couldn’t go with them,” Coleman said. “When we were fresh and momentum was with us we looked good; whether it’s sort of cream rises eventually or what not, but the Kiwis talk about being fitter than us and playing longer, and they do.
“Obviously we just hung on against the Crusaders last time, but we couldn’t hang on this time. So it’s a good little reality check of where we are in comparison to them, so I’ll take a lot of that – obviously we’re just not at their level of condition to be able to stay in those fights right to the end.”