The Waratahs are developing a reputation as stubborn big-game performers after beating competition leaders the Hurricanes in a thrilling eight-try encounter in Wellington on Saturday.
After pulling out a similar effort to topple the Brumbies four weeks ago, the 29-24 bonus point win was the second time the Waratahs answered their critics with some of the skill, hunger and edge that won them a title last year.
Whether that sort of mercurial form will be enough to power them up the competition ladder with eight games to go is another thing entirely.
But coach Michael Cheika will be delighted that Peter Betham’s double on top of abrasive forward play netted his side the competition’s biggest scalp going. The unbeaten Hurricanes scored four tries of their own and were only stopped by a long-awaited quality defensive effort from the defending champions.
Giant NSW second row Skelton scored his maiden Super Rugby try and Israel Folau notched just his second for the season, while the Waratahs forwards put in their best collective performance for 2015, helped in spades by a forward-heavy bench that Cheika mobilised in the second half.
Assistant coach Daryl Gibson said the coaches and playing group were prepared to take what came of the side’s high-risk, high-reward performance.
“We said to ourselves if we were going to not be in this competition we were going to do it our way,” Gibson said.
“That’s around attack and playing with the physicality that’s part of our trademark, and tonight was about getting back to that and being really satisfied with delivering that on the night.”
But it took the visitors a good 20 or 30 minutes to hit their stride, especially when Hurricanes flanker Ardie Savea carved up the defence early on.
Savea knocked on over the line in the first four minutes, but made a pest of himself everywhere else.
Aggressive defence eventually gave the Waratahs an opportunity, and their big ball carriers kept advancing, before Kurtley Beale gave Betham the ball and the lively winger grounded it in the 15th minute. Foley added the extra two to put the Waratahs in front 7-0.
The Hurricanes hit back with a Conrad Smith try in the corner from a scrum, which Barrett converted to equalise with NSW.
But the All Blacks five-eighth wasn’t finished. He chipped and re-gathered at halfway to run in the home side’s second try three minutes later, then converted the effort to make it 14-7.
It was classic Hurricanes opportunism, a trait the Waratahs were known for last season but have failed to spark so far this year.
Twice in the next period the visitors went on the attack and twice they were turned over.
Hurricanes halfback TJ Perenara came off second best from an encounter with Will Skelton’s right thigh, before Kurtley Beale was ruled to have lost the ball forward on the try line in the 30th minute.
The Waratahs were given a rare second bite minutes later and this time Israel Folau and Wycliff Palu linked up to put Skelton over the line with two defenders in tow. Foley couldn’t get the extras, leaving NSW trailing 14-12 with five minutes to go in the half, but neither side were ready to wind down towards the break.
Hurricanes centre Ma’a Nonu sliced through the NSW defence to help put No.8 Brad Shields over in the 38th minute, before Betham intercepted a pass from Barrett to score his second after the siren. Foley converted to lock the scores 19-19 at the break.
Benched back-rower Jacques Potgieter ran on for Pat McCutcheon after the break as the NSW forwards found their inner mongrel.
Captain Dave Dennis ran 45 metres to be pulled up less than a metre from the white paint six minutes into the half and Michael Hooper turned on the footwork to put Israel Folau away for just his second try this season and a four-try bonus point for the Waratahs.
Foley’s conversion attempt struck a lucky bounce off the left upright to put NSW a converted try in front, and he added an extra three to make it 29-19 with 20 minutes left.
The Hurricanes threatened but staunch NSW defence, freshened with the likes of Stephen Hoiles, Mitchell Chapman and Tatafu Polota-Nau, held them at bay until the home side took a quick tap from 10 metres out and Perenara went over in the 70th minute. Barrett missed the extras to leave the Waratahs to defend a five-point lead for a nail-biting final 10 minutes.
The Waratahs kept their cool, and their starch, and though Foley missed a penalty goal with less than a minute left they walked off with their most important win to date.
“It’s more a conference thing, with New Zealand teams, because we’re very conscious with their threat with the ball in hand,” Gibson said of the side’s defensive effort.
“It’s more about taking the time and space and stopping that [threat] at source. Part of that is getting up quickly and making sure it doesn’t happen.
“The times the Hurricanes still managed to get it to the sidelines they looked very dangerous.”
NSW WARATAHS 29 (Peter Betham 2, Israel Folau, Will Skelton tries Bernard Foley 3 cons pen) bt HURRICANES 24 (Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields, Conrad Smith tries Barrett 2 cons) at Westpac Stadium. Referee: Glen Jackson.
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