Looking to salvage something from a disappointing season ... Adam Ashley-Cooper. Photo: Steve Christo
ADAM ASHLEY-COOPER says he and his teammates will spend the rest of the season restoring pride to the down and out Waratahs after letting their finals hopes sputter out in South Africa last week.
The Test utility back, who joined NSW this season only to watch his old franchise, the Brumbies, to take the Australian conference by storm, said the Waratahs knew their season was over but wanted to end on a high.
''You can't afford to be average or ordinary [in Super Rugby], you have to be at your best to win and we weren't,'' he said. ''It hurts, but now that we're aware the finals are out of reach, I think we can establish a bit of pride, and do what we love doing and give it a real crack.''
That starts this weekend on the highveldt, deep in rugby heartland, where the Waratahs will take on the free-running Cheetahs. Both teams have just four wins from 12 games.
Cheetahs backline coach Hawies Fourie said the stark reality of their situations meant there was nothing to lose at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on Saturday night.
''[The Waratahs] are sort of in the same boat as us - they are out of contention for the play-offs so they should try to spread it wide,'' Fourie told iafrica.com.
''They are not scared to play in their own half so I expect quite a lot of ball-in-hand rugby on the weekend.''
Ashley-Cooper agreed with Fourie but said the Cheetahs would try to expose the visitors at altitude.
''Typically against the Cheetahs it's an expansive game and it's always a tough encounter because they're certainly aware that opposition teams struggle with the altitude,'' he said.
''[The burn] kicks in at about the 20 to 30-minute mark and with the width they play with it really opens teams up defensively.''
Ashley-Cooper said there was no way players could prepare physically for playing at altitude, but the senior squad members had tried to mentally prepare the younger players.
''It's basically just pushing through the oxygen deprivation zone you encounter … and once you find your second wind you can find some comfort,'' he said.
''You just make them aware that it's really going to hurt, so that when they encounter it they're expecting it and are mentally prepared. If you expect the worst it's not really going to be that bad.''
But this weekend a Test veteran could be hit hardest by the conditions. Ashley-Cooper said the altitude would be a real test for Drew Mitchell, who is expected to start in his playing return this weekend.
''To play your first game back at altitude is only going to make it worse,'' he said. ''It's been such a physically demanding season and to see him finally have the opportunity to feel the physical affects of playing is satisfying.''
Ashley-Cooper said Mitchell's presence would provide leadership and aggression on the field.
''He demands the football and that's what you need,'' he said. ''He demands the ball and he demands roles with the guys around him, and we've struggled with that all year.''
Coach Michael Foley won't name the side until Friday. Forwards Rocky Elsom and Sitaleki Timani are still under injury clouds, and there is also uncertainty about halfback Brendan McKibbin, who has a groin strain.