THE long flight from Sydney to Johannesburg is a trial at the best of times. But for the Waratahs, who head to the Republic this morning, it will turn into a torture trip, as they will spend hour after hour pondering where exactly their Super Rugby season derailed last night - when they competed with the Bulls for 77 minutes only to fall apart in the final three.
The Waratahs scrum had been going well until the final two set pieces, when firstly their back-up forward Lopeti Timani was caught in possession over his own line, and then from the ensuing Bulls scrum feed, their tight-head prop Werner Kruger scored the match-winning try to end any hope the Waratahs had of making the finals.
This was so cruel, as for most of the night the Waratahs played encouraging football, looking far more composed and dangerous in attack, but in the end were victims of a professional team who took full advantage of their few chances.
The Waratahs' fluctuations may have had something to do with them being distracted by the garish garb worn by the Bulls. Their oh-so-groovy-man, strawberry milkshake-coloured jersey, with plenty of swirls, was something you would expect to be worn by the main participants in a Woodstock-era psychedelic movie. You were almost waiting for a George Harrison-Ravi Shankar sitar jam session to be blaring out of the loudspeakers during any break in play.
And for the Waratahs, confronting that was almost like being on a magic mushroom trip. You couldn't help being spun out. Some moments the Waratahs were flying as high as a kite, playing to the peak of their abilities, especially when they kept dominating the scrum, enjoying a rush of free kicks and penalties, and when they got their midfield attack working in tandem, enabling Berrick Barnes to put centre Rob Horne through for their first try in a manoeuvre that involved a clever decoy run and precise attacking lines.
Other times it was if they were suffering from cold turkey, losing their way, and having to bury their heads in their hands when everything went wrong. That included them once again losing restarts, and forgetting all about discipline at important moments, especially at lineout time, where Dean Mumm interfered with an opposition jumper, and was told off by referee Chris Pollock. But he didn't learn the lesson, doing it again 15 minutes later to be waved to the sin bin. This wasn't the time to be one man down, and the Bulls immediately made the home side pay when their halfback, Francois Hougaard, scampered down the blindside from a scrum to level the scores. For the umpteenth time this season, the Waratahs failed to make the most of the moment.
It was more of the same in the second half. At times, the Waratahs were in control, and continued to upset the Bulls at the scrum - a fair effort by the NSW pack as it was without Test hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau while Benn Robinson was missing for the second half. Their attack continued to play close to the gainline, and more often than not wanted to run rather than kick, which had the desired effect of giving their winger Atieli Pakalani room to show that he can break a defence. But there were the characteristic lapses, being caught out wide defensively to give the Bulls their second try through winger Akona Ndungane to keep the visitors in the game. And then came the last two scrums where the Waratahs stumbled at the worst moment. First Timani was captured over the Waratahs line to give the Bulls the next scrum feed. From there, Kruger barged over. And for Waratahs- season over.