WARATAHS 14 CRUSADERS 16
Waratahs vs the Crusaders
HSBC NSW Waratahs vs the Crusaders trial match at Allianz Stadium on February 14, 2013. Photo: Brendan Esposito
IT IS a brave coach who makes a penalty kick a punishable offence but for Michael Cheika on Thursday night the gamble very nearly paid off.
The Waratahs broke a 60-minute drought to score two tries and go within three points of beating an All Blacks-stacked Crusaders outfit at Allianz Stadium, and all without so much as looking at the goal posts.
It took a while and then some - including a 13-point first-half deficit - for the Waratahs' attack to rid itself of the fumbles, but their persistence and Cheika's strategy were rewarded, even when the scoreline told of a 16-14 loss.
Lopeti Timani spiralled over for the home side's first try after the third-quarter siren and prop Paddy Ryan put the ball down from a maul less than 10 minutes later to give the Waratahs a one-point lead.
For most of the match NSW were on the receiving end of some sort of education from their classy trans-Tasman rivals. The Crusaders defended resolutely and took the points on offer. A penalty goal to five-eighth Dan Carter put them on the board first, a converted try to prop Paea Fa'anunu made it 10-0 and Tom Taylor slotted a second penalty to make it 13-0 while the Waratahs struggled to hold on to the ball.
There were early periods inside the Crusaders' 22 but a spookily familiar inability to convert territory into points meant the opportunities went begging.
It was only when the passes stopped bouncing and the players found their groove that the effort was rewarded.
There was also Israel Folau. He was the one who dragged the Waratahs deep into the Crusaders' 22 in that final 30 minutes when they finally broke through.
He was ably assisted by halfback Brendan McKibbin, who looked to be playing his way past teammate Grayson Hart and into the starting No. 9 jersey, and forwards Wycliff Palu and Tatafu Polota-Nau. There was also direct work from centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and a number of runs down the sideline from young winger Tom Kingston before and after he was taken from the field with blood spilling from his head.
Rookie five-eighth Ben Volavola, just a four-month resident at Moore Park after being plucked from relative obscurity at Southern Districts, will be infinitely improved for the run against such a slick opposition. He was not intimidated by the Super Rugby stage and will soon finesse the finer points. If he can't, there will be Berrick Barnes and Bernard Foley to fill the void.
It was the toughest of the Waratahs' three trials but also, undoubtedly, the most valuable. Cheika was always going to take the long-term view - give the squad experience hunting for tries and they'll learn to find them. The Reds and the cauldron of Suncorp await.