THE most unlikely of players in the most unlikely of teams handed the Waratahs a devastating upset loss to give NSW their worst start to a Super Rugby season since 1998.
It didn't matter that debutant Force fullback Dave Harvey couldn't run. The former Sydney club player, called to Perth from France on a four-game deal less than a fortnight ago, scored all but five of the Force's 21 points to give the rank outsiders a one-point win at Allianz Stadium last night.
Despite leading 14-13 at the break, the Waratahs were booed by a crowd of 14,600 – a flashback to last year's loss to the Cheetahs at the same venue – for a performance in which some of their most experienced players gave away penalties and they were out-muscled at the breakdown.
Veteran second rower Dean Mumm was sin-binned for cynical play in the 16th minute and less than a minute later the Force capitalised on the Waratahs's depleted defences. Five-eighth James Stannard gave new teammate Harvey an inside pass that he carried over the line to give the Force a 10-7 lead in the 18th minute.
"The guys who made the key decisions did a very good job – it's just a few lapses from key individuals that let them back into the game, so we need to work on ourselves more than the opposition," hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau said.
Test prop Benn Robinson was penalised early and second rower Dave Dennis was a repeat offender. Despite the sloppy play, the home side led 14-13 at the break and knew what they had to do. "We gave some very soft penalties away that allowed them to score points," coach Michael Foley said.
"We came in at half-time and had enough understanding of what we had to do to go on with the game and I think there were times in the second half where the Force put pressure on our breakdown, we overcommitted and ended up being a bit one-out in our play and allowed them to dictate the tempo of our game."
Veteran Test lock Nathan Sharpe was superb, triggering winger Samu Wara's second-half try that put the Force 21-20 in front. But the Waratahs reverted to the bad old days of kicking under pressure instead of running with possession.
"I think there were times tonight when we kicked poorly and kicked defensively and I think that was indicative, in the second half, of the fact we allowed them to dictate the tempo of the game," Foley said. "There were times where we got possession and we looked OK. I thought some of the kicking was OK but we definitely kicked ball away that we shouldn't have kicked."
The kicking triggered the booing. Vice-captain Benn Robinson said he did not hear the crowd but Polota-Nau was unrepentant. "I think they were just booing for the fact that we were kicking too much but I think our decision makers saw the opportunities there," he said. "So whether they boo or not we couldn't care less, because it was part of our strategy to play it down their end."
Adam Ashley-Cooper scored the first of the side's two tries and almost scored another, but referee Jonathon White called obstruction on centre Rob Horne. Bernard Foley and Tom Kingston, who scored the Waratahs' second try, were polished and passionate.
The Force needed this win as much as the Waratahs after clocking three losses in a row against the Brumbies, Reds and Hurricanes. But injury plagued Richard Graham's side, forcing the coach to make seven changes to the run-on side and two in the reserves.
The Waratahs, meanwhile, had claimed just one win from three solid efforts. Last week's one-point loss to the form team this season, the Highlanders, in Dunedin was tough to swallow. This one, against a winless side near the bottom of the Australian conference, will be tougher.
WESTERN FORCE 21 (David Harvey, Samu Wara tries Harvey con 3 pens) bt NSW WARATAHS 20 (Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tom Kingston tries Daniel Halangahu 2 cons 2 pens) at Allianz Stadium. Referee: Jonathan White. Crowd: 14,673.