White hot ... Dave Dennis is halted by the Brumbies' halfback Nick White. Photo: Getty Images
Waratahs 15 Brumbies 19
SEVENTEEN rounds in but last night's derby match against the Brumbies was the start of the Waratahs' ''new season'', according to coach Michael Foley in the match-day program. Which meant, one must assume, a chance after a month-long break and six straight losses to start afresh, select from left of field and shake off that losing feeling.
Cheerful ... Tatafu Polota-Nau scores the Waratahs' opening try against the Brumbies. Unfortunately his side was unable to score enough points to claim the match. Photo: Getty Images
New season, same old season. In the end it was better but not quite enough. Despite dominating possession and territory and scoring two tries to the Brumbies' one, penalties and handling errors in the crucial final minutes allowed drought-breaking victory to elude the Waratahs for the seventh game in a row.
As Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said, it ''wasn't exactly the victory we were after'' but the Australian conference leaders defended to within an inch of their lives to hold the Waratahs off for much of the match and consolidate their place in the Super Rugby finals with a four-point win.
Their coach, Jake White, pointed out after the game that it was the ninth straight game in which the Brumbies had held their opponents scoreless in the final 20 minutes.
It was a streak of a different sort for the Waratahs, who lost another close one not because their opponents played that much better but because they just couldn't play well enough. Two tries, a moderate penalty count and a six-point lead at one stage didn't cut it against the Australian conference leaders.
Coach Michael Foley and captain Benn Robinson pinpointed losing possession on the restart as the side's defining weakness last night.
''Securing that possession is critical,'' Foley said. ''If you don't, obviously they get the possession and they're in your half and that swings the momentum of the game. That happened to us probably two or three times in the game and [when] you're playing the best side in Australia, the margins are going to be fine and you need to win those little moments.''
Robinson, who played his 100th game for NSW last night, said turnovers compounded their difficulties.
''The restarts were pretty disappointing, it took us a while to adapt and get back into the game, but it's hard after scoring points to get back into the game when we were turning it over on our [22m] line,'' he said.
For NSW, it was never about a finals berth but it was about pride. They didn't win it back entirely but there were glimpses of some long-lost attacking credibility - thanks to tries to hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and inside-centre Berrick Barnes - and, at the very least, a lot for coach Michael Foley to think about over the next few months. New halfback Grayson Hart performed solidly for his part in the match and fullback-turned-five-eighth Bernard Foley gave the home side some hard running edge.
Foley praised his halves combination and said he was proud of the team for not surrendering when the finals were out of reach.
''It's hard because I've sat here a number of times next to Benn and we've talked about close losses but I give the guys a lot of credit, I think a lot of teams fade away [and] that was a much stronger performance than our last outing and I would like to think that's a step towards an even better performance next week,'' he said.
A try in the second half to Brumbies winger Henry Speight kept the Brumbies in the match and the boots of five-eighth Zack Holmes and fullback Jesse Mogg made up the difference and then some.
Polota-Nau was taken off the field in the second half with a corked glute but should be fine to play the Reds this week. Wycliff Palu has a more concerning shoulder injury, Foley said.
BRUMBIES 19 (Henry Speight try Zack Holmes con Holmes 2, Jesse Mogg 2 pens) bt NSW WARATAHS 15 (Berrick Barnes, Tatafu Polota-Nau tries Barnes con pen) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: Keith Brown. Crowd: 22,844.