The Waratahs’ finals hopes all but evaporated right before their eyes on Saturday as they suffered their worst defeat of the season on a forgetful night against the ACT Brumbies at Bankwest Stadium.
In what was billed as a do-or-die clash by everyone at the Waratahs, the boys in blue forgot to turn up in an insipid first half which saw them go down the tunnel trailing 28-3 and had everyone reaching for the record books.
Close: Folau Fainga’a of the Brumbies attempts to plant the ball in the corner.Credit:AAP
It was knock-on galore as the Brumbies ran riot and embarrassed a Waratahs team that looked like they had checked out a week early.
NSW salvaged some pride to win the second half 21-7 but ultimately fell short 35-24 in what was their ninth defeat of the season from 15 games.
The trip to Invercargill next week to face the Highlanders will be a grim one for a squad with only pride to play for.
NSW had a chance to draw level with the Rebels (34 points) or even go just ahead but produced their worst performance of the year when it mattered most.
"The Brumbies stuck to their guns and played a really dominant game there," said Waratahs captain Michael Hooper. "We went out there full of intent and wanting to get the job done and sticking to our stuff but the Brumbies were too strong. They found a game that has worked so well for them."
Eight defeats this season by eight points or fewer is a tough pill to swallow and had some of those results gone the way of Hooper’s men, he would have been able to front the cameras in a far better mood.
Meanwhile, the Brumbies guaranteed themselves top spot in the Australian conference and will host a home quarter-final in a fortnight.
It is the sixth time the Waratahs have lost to the Brumbies in seven matches since 2016.
No more excuses: Michael Hooper again had to front the cameras to explain a Waratahs loss.Credit:AAP
The victory was the Brumbies’ fifth on the trot and the last time they achieved that milestone was in 2007.
Barring a mathematical miracle, for the third time in four seasons the Waratahs won’t play finals football in yet another underwhelming outcome for a group stacked with Wallabies representatives.
Since Daryl Gibson took over at the beginning of 2016, the Waratahs have tasted victory in 28 of their 63 matches for a winning record of 44 per cent.
Luckily for Gibson, he doesn’t have to lose sleep over the headache that had been looming – resting Wallabies representatives in a game where the finals were still in his side’s grasp.
It looks like Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons, Hooper, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale won’t get their frequent flyer points next week.
A couple of early Waratahs handling errors didn’t cost them too dearly as Foley booted a penalty in the 11th minute to give the home side an early advantage.
A defensive lapse close to the line then saw Rory Arnold reach over and plant the ball over the line, prompting former Wallaby and Fox Sports commentator Stephen Hoiles to label him the best Australian second-rower in Super Rugby "by a country mile".
The Brumbies kicked ahead even further thanks to Andy Muirhead, even if the Waratahs protested that he did not ground the ball despite referee Ben O’Keeffe giving it the thumbs-up.
Making a game of it: Nick Phipps crosses for the home side at Bankwest Stadium, but it proved to be a mere consolation.Credit:AAP
A potential forward pass wasn't picked up in the lead-up to an Irae Simone try but the Waratahs only had themselves to blame with a poor defensive read on their right edge.
Nick Phipps, in his final home match for the Waratahs, wasn’t having his best outing before dotting the ball over the line in the 48th minute to give NSW a faint hope of orchestrating a remarkable comeback.
Kepu, one of the great Waratahs stalwarts, trudged off in the 61st minute with little in the tank to warm applause in his last game for NSW on home soil. It was hardly a fitting way to send off a player of his calibre.
Straightening the attack: Rob Valetini of the Brumbies is tackled by Bernard Foley and Michael Hooper.Credit:AAP
The Waratahs had their fair share of possession and territory in the second half but couldn’t come away with enough points. The absence of Israel Folau and Taqele Naiyaravoro has been more profound than anyone could have imagined.
Christian Lealiifano’s clever strip from Jed Holloway close to the line in the 69th minute summed up the evening.
Adam Ashley-Cooper scooped up a clever left-foot grubber in behind the line from Foley to score in the 71st minute and get NSW within 11 points but it was too little too late as Tom Cusack and Curtis Rona traded late five-pointers.
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