Waratahs coach Darren Coleman has conceded the dream of a home quarter-final might be a bridge too far and floated the prospect of rotating players over the next two weeks to keep his squad fresh after a disheartening 22-18 loss to the Hurricanes.
The Waratahs blew a 15-point lead against the Hurricanes on Saturday night to become the fourth Australian team to fall to a Kiwi opponent in Super Rugby Pacific this round.
The four-point defeat, courtesy of a 75th minute try from All Black Ardie Savea, was soured by the sight of star centre Izaia Perese hobbling off the field late in the second half with a knee injury and Hurricanes No. 7 Du’Plessis Kirifi sticking his middle finger up at Waratahs fans after the match.
After watching the Western Force, Brumbies and Queensland Reds all lose against New Zealand sides this round, the Waratahs couldn’t hold their composure after a terrific start, capping a poor weekend for Australian sides after positive results in previous rounds.
Not ideal is it, Coleman said. A bit disappointing, disheartening. When they went up a notch we couldn’t go with them. When we were fresh and we had momentum, we looked good. The Kiwis talk about being fitter than us and playing longer and they do. It’s a good little reality check of where we are in comparison to them.
The Waratahs, who picked up a losing bonus point, remain in fifth spot on the ladder but could slip to sixth by Sunday evening if the Chiefs beat the Rebels.
There is a decent chance the Waratahs will miss the top four and have to travel to New Zealand for a sudden death match, unless they snare a quarter-final against the Brumbies in Canberra.
You’d potentially say the top four might be a bit of a stretch now if the Chiefs continue on, Coleman said. There’s no real advantage between [finishing between position] five and eight. You’re going to play a good team and you’re playing them away.
I reckon we’ll potentially look at a bit of rotation now so we get to the play-offs fresh.
Last week the Waratahs rallied from 17-0 behind to defeat Moana Pasifika but found themselves ahead 15-0 at home after a dominant opening 40 minutes.
It was an absolute clinic from the Waratahs who dominated at scrum-time and had the majority of territory and possession.
However, when Jordie Barrett missed a sideline conversion, scores were level at 15-15 after 61 minutes, as Ben Donaldson replaced Tane Edmed at No. 10.
Donaldson nailed a 42-metre penalty to put NSW ahead by three before the Hurricanes edged ahead to make it five straight wins over the Waratahs since 2016.
Down the Hurricanes’ end of the field in the dying minutes, Paddy Ryan’s return to the Waratahs went horribly wrong as the prop was red-carded with four minutes to go for a cleanout gone wrong on Barrett.
The news of Perese’s injury is not only a blow for the Waratahs but potentially the Wallabies, depending on how long he is sidelined for.
It’s a medial ligament in his knee, so he’ll go for scans tomorrow, Coleman said. It looks like it’s a pretty nasty one.
Calls to fill the hill at Leichhardt Oval worked a treat, with thousands standing on the eastern side of the ground and soaking in an entirely different atmosphere to last year.
Old sky blue scarves and vintage jerseys are being pulled out from wardrobes all over NSW.
The scoreboard tells a different story to last year, of course, but the Waratahs are playing a brand of rugby that is appealing on the eye. Some would say even 2014-esque.
Perese continues to bump off defenders like they’re his worst enemy, Pietsch is becoming equally evasive, while Jed Holloway’s 30-metre run and looping pass had Waratahs fans wondering where this had been in 2021.
The icing on the cake came when Perese threw a brilliant offload, in the form of a right-handed flick pass, for Pietsch to score yet another try this season.
After booting an early penalty, the Waratahs had a try taken off them because halfback Jake Gordon gently kicked a ball back into a rolling maul.
However, the first quarter of the match was all one-way traffic. The Hurricanes were stuck on their own line, defending desperately against some sustained pressure from NSW, who were beneficiaries of penalty after penalty.
At one stage, the Hurricanes had made 63 tackles to the Waratahs’ three.
Eventually, NSW got their reward as Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco dived over from short range to make it 10-0 after Edmed’s conversion.
Coleman said at half-time 15 points wouldn’t be enough to walk away victorious and he was spot on.
The team travel to Dunedin next week to face the Highlanders in their penultimate match of the season. Coleman said Hooper is likely to return from a concussion, while Ned Hanigan was a late scratching from Saturday’s match due to a bump at training on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Queensland Reds have slumped to their fourth straight defeat against a Kiwi opponent with a 53-26 loss to the Auckland Blues.
Despite winning seven of their first eight games this season – predominantly against Australian teams – the Reds have struggled to get themselves into matches against Kiwi sides.
Brad Thorn’s men, who won last year’s Super Rugby AU title, have suffered consecutive defeats to the Hurricanes, Chiefs, Highlanders and now Blues by an average margin of 12. 5 points.
The Reds will still qualify for a quarter-final but hopes of it taking place at Suncorp Stadium look slim.
Queensland trailed 22-14 at the break before Beauden Barrett, Stephen Perofeta and Soane Vikena scored five-pointers to run away with the game.
It wasn’t good from us defensively, Thorn said. We showed offensively if we get down their end, we can get points … but you just can’t have that. We let ourselves down there. At half-time there was a contest going on … but we lost that momentum.