On the way up: After losing to the Sharks, the Waratahs owned up to their errors before facing the Stormers. Photo: Getty Images
If the Waratahs showed against the Sharks last week why they cannot win the Super Rugby title, then against the Stormers they displayed why there is still hope. They have the capacity to learn from their mistakes.
The Waratahs criticised referee Mike Fraser after the loss to the Sharks but were also wise to their own shortcomings and addressed them. The result was a workable lineout and a dominant scrum against the Stormers.
It would be disrespectful to say the result was never in doubt but the odds were always stacked in the Tahs’ favour once a healthy flow of possession was obtained. The Stormers simply do not score enough points.
It was a good time to be in Cape Town. The Stormers have a debilitating injury toll and are on a five-match losing streak, but they are far from basket cases. Their set-pieces are good and their defence is excellent. It’s their attack that flounders, and has for years.
In 2012, the Stormers won an unprecedented 14 out of 16 games in the regular season but were the only team not to get a four-try bonus point. It was the Chiefs, not the Stormers, who won the title that year because only battles are won under siege, never wars. The Stormers have not addressed this shortcoming and have gone from first to last on the ladder. Attritional play takes its toll on the perpetrators, too.
Criticism of the Waratahs over recent weeks has been in the context of their title-winning credentials. It does not dilute the fact they are a very good team, and when Kurtley Beale combines with Israel Folau, they hit heights that few can match.
The Tahs two losses have been, arguably, the most bruising matches of the season. This is not a team that concedes defeat easily and, on Saturday night, they face the Force who, even in their dark days, rarely roll over.
The Perth men have gone from plucky losers to "lucky winners". It’s a neat description but luck is running their way because they have addressed their failings. Attacking prowess has been added to graft, and with it they are shedding their reputation as the team that would always lose the close ones.
It’s not by luck that this has happened. The Force are scoring more points as well. With Jayden Hayward, Luke Morahan, Kyle Godwin, Alby Mathewson and Nick Cummins, there is genuine strike power in the backs. In six matches this season, they have racked up as many four-try bonus points as they did in the previous three seasons combined.
They are also armed with a blueprint on how to beat the Tahs, courtesy of the Brumbies and Sharks. The Brumbies targeted the Waratahs ball players with heavy-hitting rush defence, while the Sharks applied unrelenting pressure on the supply line. Both approaches limited time and space at the gain line.
The Force must conjure up a tactic that produces the same result. As the Chiefs can attest, they are good at breakdown pressure, but they need to apply the blowtorch to the Waratahs’ new-found confidence in the set-piece.
If the Waratahs have sorted out their set-piece, then their opponents will need a new blueprint. If Beale and Folau are regularly given time and space, then it’s a completely different ball game.