The Waratahs have claimed their first victory of the Super Rugby AU competition on a historic night that saw the Western Force (finally!) return to Super Rugby.
It was no secret over the last few years that ever since the Force had been cut from Super Rugby, there had been a great big hole in the Aussie side of the competition for many.
The sheer tenacity of the fans in the West for refusing to let their team die with this announcement was nothing short of incredible, and the success the club went on to achieve both with Global Rapid Rugby and with their claiming of the National Rugby Championship last year proved to many how valuable a team they had become in the context of Australian rugby. For many, it wasn’t a matter of if they’d return, but when. And yesterday, they did.
The Force had come into this game as the Waratahs’ bogey team, having defeated them in four of their last six clashes, including their famous last laugh in 2017 when they sent off Matty Hodgson in style with a 40-11 drubbing.
The Waratahs had enjoyed mixed results since then, finishing the 2018 season in 3rd and going down in the semi-final to the Lions, before having a 2019 season that many would prefer to forget. The Tahs have shown some potential under Penney, with the coach turning to the future with a predominately young squad. But aside from one win over the Lions, the team hadn’t yielded much on-field success during this period of intensive and much needed change.
This change seemed to be coming through following a close loss to the Reds last week, which made this clash a particularly interesting one to watch. Add to this, having playing several more games this year than the Force, the balance seemed to tip in favour of the home side.
If the Force appeared to not have a lot of game time together, it certainly didn’t show in the first half. In fact, they picked up exactly where they left off from their final 2017 game. Riding on the emotion of the occasion, they out-enthused the Waratahs for the much of the opening twenty, and were rewarded early when Prior kicked a penalty goal to put them up 0-3. Their time in GRR seemed to be showing, with the Force looking to set a faster pace and run the Tahs ragged.
This faster pace was finally rewarded at the 28th minute, when some slick hands and a Tahs side caught napping offside saw Ralston score the opening try for the away side in the corner. While Prior failed to convert, it was safe to say that the Force were looking the more dominant side, up 0-8.
The Waratahs began to get frustrated off the back of struggling to get into the game, and several penalties saw the Force take easy points, both in the 32nd and 35th minute. Prior did not miss on either occasion, and suddenly the men from the West were up by two converted tries, 0-14. Many had written the Force off, but a pushover, they were proving very much not to be.
However, with only a few minutes left in the half, the young Waratahs finally got a foothold in the game. The battle of the Piggies had been a close one up until this point, but when the Waratahs finally found themselves deep in Force territory, they turned to their forwards. After several relentless phases off the ruck, Angus Bell was the recipient of an ingenious pop pass and finally scored on halftime to give the Waratahs some valuable points. Harrison converted and the lads headed off to the changeroom, the game very much up in the air.
Halftime: NSW Waratahs 7-14 Western Force
Whatever Penney said to the Tahs at halftime, they came out a much more considered and patient side. Similar to what the Force had done in the latter stages of the first half, the men in sky blue began to chip away at the Force’s lead, with young gun Harrison again showing incredible composure and taking points on offer at the 45th minute.
Finally, after an intense fifteen minute period between the two sides, Harrison rewarded the Tahs again just before the 60th minute with another successful penalty goal. Suddenly, the Force were holding on to a slender 1 point lead, 13-14.
During this period as well, the Waratahs’ forwards began to ask serious questions of the Force scrum and lineout, sensing an opportunity to grab some field dominance. Finally, this dominance resulted in the Force giving away a penalty and the Tahs found themselves deep in enemy territory, with the lead beckoning. Tom Staniforth showed incredible strength to really pin the Force back, before finally combining with the Piggies to score slap bang under the sticks and give the Tahs the lead for the first time. Harrison nailed the conversion and score was 20-14.
The Force were still within range of regaining the lead, however their lack of game time this year was finally beginning to show. The Waratahs, however, were not looking to take any chances with the Force still in striking distance, and in the 73rd minute, with a penalty and try line beckoning, the Tahs went for the points instead, and Harrison’s successful goal saw the Waratahs get out to beyond a converted try, which is where the scores remained until full time.
Full Time Score: NSW Waratahs 23-14 Western Force
If I was a Force fan, I would be really proud of the effort the men from the west put in. Having only played one game together in 2020, (a 51-14 victory over the Malaysia Valke back in March), they came out hungry, played smart, and brought a game style that had the Tahs on the back foot for the majority of the game. The sheer fact they hadn’t had much game time together really was what proved to be their undoing in the second half, as their forwards struggled for cohesion and they found themselves in the offside position. Despite the loss, they proved beyond a doubt that they will be a difficult team to put away in this tournament. They head off to Queensland next week to take on the Reds.
This was a much, MUCH needed win for this young Waratahs side. With Super Rugby seeing this young side pick up only one win from six matches, they needed a confidence booster and should be commended for their patience in chasing the game down in the second half. The win is a much needed one for this side and for Penney, and they will certainly need it for next week when they host current competition favourites the Brumbies at ANZ Stadium.
The Game Changer
Really, it was the fifteen minute period early in the second half. This was a real moment of attrition, with the clear winner of this period the eventual winner of the game. The Tahs forwards really showed some great endurance here, and overcame a good Force pack to finally get the dominance they needed to win.
The GAGR MOTM
The moment Tom Staniforth replaced Ned Hanigan, it was clear he was going to have a big impact in the game. His aggression and hunger to get involved was what bent the forwards battle in favour of the Tahs, and no further example was needed than the try he scored, off the back of an excellent play he started only a few phases earlier.
I saw it before and I say it again, Will Harrison is such an exciting player to watch. He has been showing incredible control with the boot and is improving massively in open play. He is without doubt a Wallaby in waiting. For the Force, Kieran Longbottom also had a really positive game, but Ian Prior was best on park for the away team, really directing the backline well and having a solid night with the boot.
NSW Waratahs 23
Tries: Bell, Staniforth
Cons: Harrison 2/2
Goals: Harrison 3/3
Western Force 14
Cons: Prior 0/1
Goals: Prior 3/3