Jake White and his army of last-chance soldiers dimmed the lights on the Waratahs’ finals hopes with a two-tries-to-none humbling of NSW at fortress Canberra last night.
The Australian conference leaders produced another hungry display of attacking rugby and confined the Waratahs to just six points to cement their spot in the tournament’s top three and widen the gap between themselves and NSW.
There are still six games to go in the regular season, including a chance in Sydney in two months’ time to avenge last night’s loss, but three games in a row ahead against South African teams will make creeping into the top six on the tournament ladder no mean feat for the Waratahs.
‘‘The Brumbies have pulled two wins ahead of us and clearly that’s a fair bit of ground to make up and we don’t have much time to make it up so it’s important for us again to regroup and to put in a very good performance next week at home against the Bulls,’’ coach Michael Foley said.
But there’s a bit to do before then. Foley last night nominated the most basic of skills, passing, as an area that let down his side in attack, on top of shocking lapses in defence.
‘‘I think particularly loose passing,’’ he said. ‘‘[On] so many balls out of half line-break situations we got past half of their team to two thirds of their team and there was a few defenders left to beat and we throw a loose pass out of the contact.
‘‘And when you build pressure over five or six phases and you’re about to finish the job, you need to do that. You need to build a scoreline which changes the way they play the game. We never did that, they were able to remain comfortable – as much as they were fighting hard, theyw ere never under that pressure of having to play from behind.’’
The Waratahs, in contrast, were.
With scores locked at six points apiece for much of the first half, they appeared to have overhauled their game by keeping the ball in hand and limiting kicking. They also looked to have plugged the defensive gaps exposed last week against the Crusaders until they were caught wide open with seconds to go before the break, allowing the Brumbies to score their first try – and then their second soon after the break.
The defensive lapses were coupled with a frustrating inability to convert possession and territory into points during the first half, a persistent problem that etched deep lines in Foley’s browin the coaching box.
‘‘When we had so much opportunity in the first 20 minutes to score points and didn’t do it, it’s particularly disappointing [to lose],’’ he said.
‘‘I thought [five-eighth] Berrick Barnes had one of his better games, I thought he got the team on the front foot. There were six occasions I think I counted in the first 17 minutes where we were attacking and gave the ball back to the opposition and they were defending well, to their credit, but there were opportunities there that we didn’t take and I thought they were very, very good at being patient and taking the opportunities that came their way.’’
The Brumbies were also determined to find a way where the Waratahs were not, and the visitors helped their rivals over the try line on both occasions.
In the first instance, Barnes, winger Peter Betham and fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper fell off Henry Speight to let him cross and ground the ball after the half-time bell, in the visitors’ first real defensive lapse.
In the second instance, it was inside-centre Andrew Smith who slipped by Ashley-Cooper to cap an impressive, sustained period of pick-and-go on the try-line. It was a disappointing slide for the Waratahs and one that cannot happen again if this side is to make the finals.
If last week’s narrow loss to the Crusaders was an encouraging glimpse of the skill and fight in Foley’s men, this game was an insight into what the Waratahs lack: ruthlessness and true cohesion in attack, however hard that might be to manufacture in a back line assembled and reassembled with frightening regularity as the injuries roll on.
The good news is that the Waratahs should get hard-defending centre Rob Horne back for the Bulls game at home on Friday and they love a fight.
The bad news is the Waratahs are running out of time to get it together.
BRUMBIES 23 (Andrew Smith, Henry Speight tries Christian Lealiifano 2 cons 3 pens) bt NSW WARATAHS 6 (Brendan McKibbin 2 pens) at Canberra Stadium. Referee: Chris Pollock. Crowd: 19,122.