Force 18 Waratahs 23
Tom Kingston of the Waratahs dives for a try after a counter-attacking move. Photo: Getty Images
THE WARATAHS have kept alive their Super Rugby finals hopes after surviving a thrilling second-half surge from the Western Force in Perth last night.
The visitors, still smarting from their one-point loss to the Force in Sydney a month ago, scored the only try of the first half and dominated possession before surrendering a 14-point lead in the second half to trail with 20 minutes to go.
Waratahs stand tall in west
The NSW Waratahs survived a fightback from the Western Force to stay in the hunt for the Super Rugby finals. Photo: Getty Images
It was a near repeat performance of the Waratahs' capitulation to the Chiefs a fortnight earlier. They surrendered a comfortable lead in the first few minutes of the second stanza to end up trailing the Force by a point with 20 minutes to go.
Two offside penalties let the home side back in before five-eighth Berrick Barnes clawed back a two-point lead, then extended it to five with two penalty kicks as coach Michael Foley began deploying the reserves.
A first-half try to Tom Kingston and an easy five points off the lineout from Dave Dennis early in the second half turned out to be enough of a buffer, but only just.
The Waratahs' defence, commanding and patient in the first half, struggled once it occurred to the Force running straight and narrow had not worked for the first 40 minutes and probably would not work for the final 40.
The third-placed Australian side began spreading it wide to gain territory and the home side's forwards were superb at the pick and go, sending veteran halfback Brett Sheehan over for the side's first five points of the game. Dave Harvey failed to convert but another concerted attack from the Force led to fullback Alfie Mafi bolting over to put the side within two points of their foes after Harvey nailed his next conversion attempt.
Momentum had well and truly turned against the visitors, who were limited to little more than 20 per cent of possession in the opening 20 minutes of the second half.
A penalty kick put the Force into the lead before Barnes's calm boot edged the Waratahs apoint in front. He missed the next kick but made it 23-18 soon after.
The reserve players proved a life-saving injection for the Waratahs. Sarel Pretorius was instrumental in setting up winger Adam Ashley-Cooper for what looked to be a certain try before he was tackled around the neck by replacement Kieran Longbottom, which led to Barnes's match-saving penalty kick.
The Timani brothers had the desired impact up front after replacing Kane Douglas and Wycliff Palu.
Waratahs coach Michael Foley was pleased with the win.
"We trained very hard over the last two weeks," he said.
"The guys were disappointed not performing against the Chiefs and they worked very, very hard in training and I think to come out after a bye is always a difficult thing. To have a week off probably helped us in the end to finish stronger than the Force, who obviously played last week.
"I think we played some really good rugby in the first 40 minutes but there were a couple of decisions we made that let them back in the game at crucial times in that third 20 minutes of the match."
Waratahs captain Benn Robinson said errors nearly cost his team victory.
''Another tough night, the Force played such a strong game and we had silly errors in the second half,'' he said. "Foles mentioned before that that third quarter was very tough for us, there was times out there we gave away some silly penalties - that's definitely not through any lack of effort there - but a few decisions that we made there that put them back on the front foot."
It was a complete turnaround from the first half, when the visitors spent countless minutes inside the Force's 22 but failed to capitalise on the territory domination, much like the loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The Waratahs went into the dressing rooms seven points ahead at the break but had plenty of opportunities to be further in front. A patient extended phase of play right in front of the Force's posts came to nothing despite penalty after penalty against Force prop Salesi Ma'afu, who was eventually yellow-carded for infringements at the scrum.
The Waratahs scored first after the break before things looked like they might unravel. The difference this week might have been that loss to the Chiefs.
Their season lives on because of it.
NSW WARATAHS 23 (Dave Dennis, Tom Kingston tries Brendan McKibbin 2 cons Berrick Barnes 2, McKibbin pens) bt WESTERN FORCE 18 (Alfie Mafi, Brett Sheehan tries David Harvey con 2 pens) at nib Stadium. Referee: Glen Jackson. Crowd: 12,838.