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By Waratahs Rugby Media Unit
NSW Waratahs 44 – Highlanders 16
Asteron Life Super Rugby Round 18 – Allianz Stadium, Sydney
The NSW Waratahs have demolished the Otago Highlanders, running in six tries to one on their way to a huge Sunday afternoon win at Allianz Stadium. In front of a spirited home crowd, the Tahs ran in five second half tries to ensure top spot on the ladder and a crucial home semi-final.
Head Coach Michael Cheika was elated with the win, particularly the electric second half that saw his side pile on 33 points to run over the Highlanders and secure a record six successive Super Rugby wins for the first time in NSW history.
“It’s a good feeling to achieve a goal that you set yourself at the start of the year and obviously it’s the first of our two objectives for the season. But more important was that I liked the way we played in the second half,” Cheika said.
“We knuckled down to try and be physical with the ball, we were good defensively and the tries came after that. It was good to see such a good crowd enjoy the afternoon and that’s really important for us.”
Despite securing the minor premiership and a home semi-final, Cheika would not buy into the hype surrounding his highly-fancied side.
“Finishing first is obviously important... But most of those box seats have an eject button. And if you’re not ready for what’s to come in the finals you’ll get ejected straight out,” he warned.
The Tahs were clinical in the opening exchanges, with Alofa Alofa making some early inroads down the right hand side and allowing Bernard Foley to boot the opening penalty goal, three minutes into the half.
All Black Malakai Fekitoa looked to reply soon after, charging down the right hand side and skipping past several would-be tackles, before a desperate Rob Horne did brilliantly to lunge and dislodge the ball to earn his side a scrum.
From the restart, some beautiful interplay from the Tahs’ backs saw Adam Ashley-Cooper punch through a midfield hole and work his way into the Highlanders’ half.
Under pressure in a retreating backline, scrumhalf Aaron Smith knocked down a pass in an offside position to defend a certain try. It was to no avail, with Israel Folau scooping up the loose ball and offloading to his skipper Michael Hooper, who swivelled around to feed an unmarked Horne for the first try of the game.
As Foley’s conversion sailed left of the uprights, referee Steve Walsh showed Smith a yellow card for cynical play and the scrumhalf was sent to cool his heels for 10 minutes.
Some abrasive Otago forward play offset their numerical disadvantage, and flyhalf Lima Sopoaga had a chance to open the visitors’ account midway through the half. Although his penalty attempt was wide of the posts, he made amends two minutes later when Sekope Kepu was caught at the bottom of a Highlanders’ ruck.
The Tahs were back on the attack soon after, with a beautiful wrap around move sending Horne into space down the left and opening up a big hole in the midfield for Foley to float through on his way into the attacking 22.
The pressure cracked the visitors, with flanker Shane Christie penalised for leaving his feet at ruck time. Foley’s penalty goal sent the Waratahs to 414 season points, eclipsing their 2011 and 2013 single-season point scoring record in Super Rugby.
Sopoaga kicked two more penalties in the dying stages of the half to bring the visitors into attacking range, trailing 11-9 at the interval.
The Tahs came out firing after the break, swarming the Highlanders from the kickoff and earning an attacking scrum, five metres out. Kurtley Beale swung the ball inside to Folau in a planned move and the big fullback proved unstoppable from close range. The well-worked set piece try was their seventh of the season from first phase, much to the delight of those in their coaches’ box.
In a game of milestones, Foley produced another with his successful conversion, surpassing Peter Hewat’s 2006 single-season Super Rugby point-scoring record for the Waratahs.
The ruthless Tahs weren’t done yet, and minutes later Alofa fired a beautiful flick pass to Kepu in space. The big prop, voted players’ player after the game, burst through several tackles on the way to his second Super Rugby try. After a tight half-time score line, two quick tries had blown the Tahs lead out to 23-9.
In desperate need of a reply, the danger men stepped up for Otago, with Ben Smith jinking his way through the middle and linking with winger Robbie Buckman. But Beale spoiled the move with a superb covering tackle bundling the fullback into touch in the left hand corner.
The Highlanders’ inability to convert their chances proved even more costly soon after, when a scrum of their five metre line was demolished by the Tahs’ pack. Nick Phipps dived on the ball when it popped out, but his offload travelled forward to an unmarked Horne.
Phipps made amends from the next scrum, which the Tahs again dominated for a tighthead win. Palu picked the ball up from the base and shovelled the ball to his scrumhalf, who burrowed under Elliot Dixon to dot down for the bonus-point try in the corner. Foley’s sideline conversion went off the upright and over, giving the Tahs an imposing 30-9 lead.
Kepu went from try-scorer to provider minutes later, bursting through the line and offloading to gift Jacques Potgieter a well-deserved score in close. Foley’s conversion sent the crowd into raptures and the Tahs even further ahead, before Potgieter received a standing ovation as he left the field.
A chip and chase try to Phil Burleigh from the kick-off gave the visitors their first try in the encounter but it would not be the last act of the game. That honour went to huge replacement winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, who ran over the helpless Highlanders’ outside backs to score his first ever Super Rugby try on fulltime.
Foley’s conversion after the siren was the final nail in the coffin, sending the final score line to 44-16 and ensuring the Tahs would top the ladder and host a semi-final in three weeks’ time.
Stay tuned to www.waratahs.com.au for all the latest scheduling and ticketing info and remember that members get priority access to finals tickets.
NSW Waratahs 44 (tries: Horne, Folau, Kepu, Phipps, Potgieter, Naiyaravoro; cons: Foley 4; pens: Foley 2) def Highlanders 16 (tries: Burleigh; cons: Parker; pens: Sopoaga 3)
NSW Waratahs: 1. Benn Robinson (Eastwood), 2.Tatafu Polota Nau (Parramatta), 3. Sekope Kepu (Randwick), 4. Jacques Potgieter (Eastern Suburbs), 5. Kane Douglas (Southern Districts), 6.Stephen Hoiles (Randwick), 7. Michael Hooper (Manly, captain), 8. Wycliff Palu (Manly), 9. Nick Phipps (Sydney University), 10. Bernard Foley (Sydney University), 11. Rob Horne (Southern Districts), 12. Kurtley Beale (Randwick), 13. Adam Ashley-Cooper (Northern Suburbs, vice captain), 14. Alofa Alofa (West Harbour), 15 Israel Folau (Sydney University).
Replacements: 16. Tolu Latu (Sydney University), 17. Jeremy Tilse (Sydney University), 18. Paddy Ryan (Sydney University), 19. Will Skelton (Sydney University), 20. Mitch Chapman (Eastern Suburbs), 21. Pat McCutcheon (Sydney University), 22. Brendan McKibbin (Eastern Suburbs), 23.Taqele Naiyaravoro (Parramatta).
Highlanders: 1. Kane Hames, 2. Brayden Mitchell, 3. Chris King, 4. Tom Franklin, 5. Joe Wheeler, 6. Elliot Dixon, 7. Shane Christie, 8. Nasi Manu (co-captain), 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Lima Sopoaga, 11. Patrick Osborne, 12. Shaun Treeby, 13. Malakai Fekitoa, 14. Richard Buckman, 15. Ben Smith (co-captain).
Replacements: 16. Ged Robinson, 17. Matias Diaz, 18. JP Koen, 19. Josh Bekhuis, 20. Lee Allan, 21. Fumiaki Tanaka, 22. Hayden Parker, 23. Phil Burleigh.
Referee: Steve Walsh (AUS)
Half-time: NSW Waratahs 11 – 9 Highlanders
Yellow cards: Aaron Smith (13th min)
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Andrew Kellaway, Tom Robertson and Jack Dempsey have been announced as the nominees for this year’s Chris Whitaker Aspiring Waratah Award.