The Waratahs scored twice in the last 10 minutes to make a massive statement about their Vodacom Super Rugby aspirations as they downed the defending champions, the Chiefs 33-17 in New Plymouth on Saturday.
In doing so they not only gave themselves a massive boost in terms of confidence with such a comprehensive victory away from home, but also consolidated their place at the top of the Australian conference, moving into second place and are now just one point behind the table topping Sharks.
The Chiefs will be wondering what has happened in the last few weeks as they sunk to their second consecutive defeat after their humiliation at the hands of the Hurricanes last week, with the June break not coming fast enough for Dave Rennie to try and right whatever has gone wrong for the defending champions ahead of the last few weeks of the competition.
On Saturday they were outmuscled and beaten often to the breakdown by a Waratahs side that looked more determined, more hungry and focused and even though they fought their way back into the game through two second half tries, there was large parts of the game where they were simply struggling to hold on.
Considering the Waratahs also had a try disallowed, the game was certainly a massive boost for coach Michael Cheika, who must now fancy his side’s chances of going all the way in the competition.
With players like Adam Ashley-Cooper, Jacques Potgieter, Paddy Ryan and Israel Folau in great form, there isn’t a side – home or away – that the Waratahs will fear at the moment.
The Chiefs started so well, with Aaron Cruden slotting a third minute penalty to put them into the lead. That was quickly negated by a similar kick by Bernard Foley, before the Waratahs took control of the game.
First it was Alofa Alofa who went over after a sniping run by Nick Phipps that sent the winger over, but the replays showed that one of the Waratahs defenders was illegally held back in the preceding play and the try was disallowed.
It didn’t matter much, as the Waratahs soon launched another attack, breaking the defensive line thanks to Ashley-Cooper and setting Israel Folau up for an easy finish for his 11th try of the season, a new Waratah record.
Foley added another penalty late in the first half to send the visitors into halftime 13-3 up, but it was the Chiefs who hit back early in the second half through a brace of tries by midfielder Bundee Aki.
Both were virtually identical, a grubber stabbed through behind the defence for Aki’s speed to hunt down and pounce, although the first may have been debatable as he never took it in his hands and fell on the ball with his torso, while the second was a clear try.
Those tries brought the Chiefs to 17-16 ahead and for the first time in the game it looked as if they may have enough to head home for the victory.
The Waratahs, however, weren’t done yet, and continued to apply the pressure, retaking the lead through a Foley penalty in the 61st minute before they made the game their own with the last two strikes of the game.
A massive tackle by Tatafu Polota-Nau forced a turnover for the Tahs, and they took full advantage of it, going blindside to catch the defence napping and send captain Dave Dennis on a 20 metre run to the tryline to score.
Continued pressure saw Foley cross just before the final whistle, to not only take away any hope of a late Chiefs bonus point, but to also underline the Waratahs superiority in the clash.
The Chiefs will write this off to a bad day at the office, but for the rest of the competition, it’s hard not to talk of the Waratahs as massive title contenders after this win.
Chiefs - Tries: Bundee Aki (2). Conversions: Aaron Cruden (2). Penalty: Cruden.
Waratahs - Tries: Israel Folau, Dave Dennis, Bernard Foley. Conversions: Foley (3). Penalties: Foley (3), Kurtley Beale.