Welcome to Part 2 in our off-season series of match writeups where we have “adopted” the NSW Waratahs to both keep an eye on Leinster signing Kane Douglas and support Michael Cheika in his bid to become the first coach to win provincial titles in both hemispheres.
[Note - we here at HoR are fully aware that every pun on the word “Tah” has probably been done in the Australian press at this stage but as far as we are concerned all of them are “fair dinkum” on this side of the planet!]
We’re all meant to be very excited about the new & improved Rugby Champions Cup here in Europe, but apart from the reduction in qualifiers, the reality is that the tournament is pretty much exactly the same as it was before.
So the fact remains that even if you win all of your pool matches by a considerable margin playing amazing free-flowing rugby to secure a number one seed in knockout stages, not only does that only guarantee you just one further home fixture, you have to wait over two months for it to come around, hoping against hope your best players don’t fall to Six Nations injury in the meantime.
Now I’m not suggesting that Super Rugby is perfect by any stretch, but let’s just say its format makes things a lot easier for Michael Cheika and his Waratahs now than they were for him when he coached Leinster to our first Heineken Cup triumph in 2009.
Nor am I suggesting that their playoff matches themselves will be easy…you can never say that when the seven-time champion Crusaders are still in the mix…but what I am saying is that this has been a record-breaking campaign for the Tahs and they have clinched first place on the overall “ladder” with a game to spare, so they are rightly rewarded by at least knowing all their playoff action will be in Sydney.
And what a show they put on in their final regular-season for that same Sydney crowd. These Highlanders may not have had as many recognisable international names in their lineup as their hosts but don’t let the scoreline fool you - they were no slouches on the day and even with this loss are still in strong contention for the finals themselves.
Michael Cheika’s task from here on in may not be simple to do but it is definitely simple to define…he needs to keep them focused on the prize between now and their home semifinal in three weeks’ time because if they can replicate this kind of form I doubt anyone can stop them.
The best way I can writeup this match is to go through the starting lineup man for man just in case I leave anyone out…
15 ISRAEL FOLAU - I tend to be sceptical about rugby league converts but this guy has to be an exception. As he showed in the Lions series last season he has taken to this code like a duck to water and is almost always at the heart of anything good offensively the Tahs do. Ran a perfect support line for their second try at the start of the second half which in many ways killed the contest.
14 ALOFA ALOFA - Quality winger who can not only finish but also supplied a sublime offload for Kepu on the way to try number 3. He’s on his way to La Rochelle in the Top 14 next season and that can only be good for the newly-promoted outfit.
13 - ADAM ASHLEY-COOPER - Amazingly AAC has never played in the Super Rugby playoffs before; it is long overdue. Of course you can’t mention this guy without including a link to his famous Superman double-tackle against the Boks.
12 - KURTLEY BEALE - His career has had its drawbacks, and he may still have some defensive issues but he has definitely found himself where he belongs in the Tahs 12 jersey going by what I have seen over the past couple of weeks.
11 - ROB HORNE - Supplied the finish to what was an amazing team try that went the length of the field. Much like Leinster wingers, the Tahs’ 11 & 14s are expected to do a lot more than just sit out wide and wait for a chance to come to them.
10 - BERNARD FOLEY - Who says it has to be November to rock a porn stache? This guy has gone from impressing against the Lions in a midweek match last year to being the top Wallaby 10 making even Ewen McKenzie go “Quade who”? Lost count of the times he broke the line in this match and for a 10 to lead the side in metres gained with 145 says it all really.
9 - NICK PHIPPS - Foley would probably be the first to tell you that his own success owes a lot to the contributions of Phipps and the 9 earned himself a try of his own when despite a neat set move off the scrum with Kepu he still had work to do to get it over the line and he managed it with ease to earn the Tahs a try bonus.
1 - BENN ROBINSON - Cult loosehead and a deadly finisher from 5 yards out, in other words, very much in the Cian Healy mould.
2 - TATAFU POLOTA-NAU - Kept his front row focused as they demolished the ‘Landers scrum when it mattered in the second half.
3 - SEKOPE KEPU - Forced 3 turnovers, scored try number 3 and provided the final offload for try number 5. Oh, and the whole “dominant scrum” thing I mentioned above. Not a bad return for a tighthead!
4 - JACQUES POTGEITER - Just 3 test caps for this Springbok, and given the return of Victor to the arena I’d be surprised if he got much more given he’s 28, but make no mistake he can put himself about and was a powerful presence in this match, including being the grateful recipient of the Kepu offload I mentioned above.
5 - KANE DOUGLAS - Came off at half time with a knock that obviously I’m hoping isn’t too serious. Kind of fluffed a good attacking position at one point but his overall contribution in the one and a half matches I’ve focused on in the past couple of weeks has been more than good enough for me to know he’ll fit right in at the RDS.
6 - STEPHEN HOILES - Had big boots to fill after club captain Dave Dennis was ruled out for the season but was part of a hungry Tahs back row, though to be fair both sides were strong in this area and at some stages the counter-rucking was as intense as I’ve ever seen it.
7 - MICHAEL HOOPER - Given the intensity I mention above you won’t be surprised that this guy was involved. Lets his emotions get the better of him sometimes but that’s the kind of passion you want in a 7. Reckon he could be key to the Wallabies’ hopes in this year’s Bledisloe & Rugby Championship.
8 - WYCLIFF PALU - Involved in moves off the base of the scrum for two tries and made all his tackles.
REPLACEMENTS - Will Skelton is possibly one of the reasons Kane Douglas feels he can seek his fortune in the northern hemisphere, big future ahead for the lad. Also as if the starting back three wasn’t quality enough for the Tahs, they also have a massive Fijian called Taqele Naiyaravoro who provided a very 7s-like finish at the hooter to provide the icing on the cake for what was a good old-fashioned thrashing of a decent provincial side.
I may have picked the Tahs to focus on because I wanted to run the rule over a particular player coming to Leinster, but after seeing these last two matches they really do look like a team you can get behind…full of quality players, getting solid contributions from 1 to 23, and now they have their playoffs guaranteed at home, they really seem to have a shot at their first title.
Put it this way…securing top spot in the regular season (or as the Aussies call it, the “Minor Premiership”) won’t be near enough to satisfy Michael Cheika at this stage. He has one more match before the finals next week against the 2011 Champions the Reds in Brisbane - it’s quite likely he’ll take a leaf out of the IRFU’s player protection handbook to make sure his squad is ready.
As for who his side will face, well that’s definitely up for debate. Don’t rule out them facing these Highlanders again, but their final match is away to the Crusaders who are themselves chasing the bye into the semifinals. As for Hurricanes although now sit in 5th place, they have played their full set of matches so they need to rely on results elsewhere.
Tie of the round next weekend has to be the Brumbies against the Force - winners probably get a home playoff, losers get to call it a season. Meanwhile in South Africa it has been a disappointing campaign for everyone except the Sharks who could do with an easy final match in Cape Town, though I doubt the Stormers will be very obliging somehow.
But like I said, they’ll all have their work cut out to catch these Tahs. It will certainly be fun to watch them try. JLP