Make no mistake, “Tah Week” isn’t dead, but the Brumbies are still the ones smiling.
Brumbies chairman Matt Nobbs almost left GIO Stadium with egg on his face and a lighter wallet on Saturday evening as the Waratahs came within a whisker of snapping a 10-game losing streak against their ACT rivals.
But a 77th-minute try from Corey Toole helped the Brumbies seal a 40-36 victory over a Waratahs team who stuck at it and almost came away with an unlikely win.
The Waratahs led 33-21 with 20 minutes remaining, but conceded two tries in five minutes as Pete Samu and Lachlan Lonergan changed the momentum in a seesawing clash.
The Waratahs’ woes were compounded when Michael Hooper was sent to the bin in the 65th minute for a cynical knock-on.
NSW still managed to take a 36-35 lead with a penalty goal before a critical error from Ben Donaldson with just over four minutes remaining.
The NSW No.10 kicked out on the full to gift the Brumbies field position and a chance to twist the knife into their Sydney rivals who worked so hard to remain in the contest.
Lachlan Lonergan scores for the Brumbies.Credit:Getty
That they did as Toole scored down the left to wrap up yet another victory in an 11-try thriller and consign the Waratahs to a fifth loss in six matches.
“I’m proud to be their coach,” said Waratahs coach Darren Coleman. “They were tough and committed. We gave it a good shot, fell a bit short, but it’s a different sort of feeling. I’m comfy and confident where we’re heading.”
There were no beers on offer for travelling Waratahs fans days after a back-handed barb, intended to help sell more tickets, almost backfired spectacularly.
“It used to be a great rivalry,” Nobbs told the Herald this week. “If they’re good enough to beat us, I’ll meet everyone in the bar at the Meninga Stand and shout them all a beer.”
It wasn’t a laughing matter for Waratahs skipper Gordon after the match.
“According to their chairman it isn’t [a rivalry],” Gordon said with a straight face on the Stan Sport broadcast. “We thought it was a great game tonight. We want the rivalry to keep going, we’ve just got to perform better.”
Coleman added: “I’ve got to admit I was looking forward to going in the Meninga Bar to have a beer. I was really looking forward to doing that and meeting Mr Nobbs. I’ll get that beer off him in the semis.”
The Waratahs lost the overall penalty count 16-6 – they conceded nine straight penalties before half-time – and were reduced to 13 men at one stage. Any rugby team, in those circumstances, is going to find it mighty hard to claw their way back into the contest.
Max Jorgensen impressed again on both sides of the ball, while Mark Nawaqanitawase scored an outstanding chip-and-chase try when it mattered most.
But it was the Waratahs’ forwards who rolled their sleeves up and overcame extra fatigue to help keep the game alive.
There was no shortage of passion and intensity. Both teams rose to the occasion in a match Wallabies coach Eddie Jones had made clear was extremely important ahead of his first Australian squad announcement on Sunday.
Jones would have enjoyed what he saw. This was tough, uncompromising rugby.
After a week of headlines about a future Waratah in Joseph Suaalii, NSW turned attention back to the field with the first try of the night courtesy of a Hooper line break and a perfect pass to Dylan Pietsch, who crossed down the left edge with ease.
When NSW hooker Dave Porecki dotted the ball down on the line after multiple pick and drives – replays were inconclusive but Nic Berry’s on-field decision stood – the Waratahs had opened up a 14-0 lead inside 20 minutes to stun the home side.
New father Len Ikitau pegged a five-pointer back for the Brumbies minutes after a brilliant try-saving tackle and turnover against the run of play in his side’s danger zone.
Awful discipline killed the Waratahs before half-time, with the visitors conceding nine straight penalties with the Brumbies camped on their own line.
Then came the stuff you can’t coach. As the boys in sky blue call it, being “Tah tough”.
Somehow, a Waratahs team with tight-head props Harry Johnson-Holmes and Daniel Botha in the bin prevented a notoriously lethal Brumbies driving maul.
When Cadeyrn Neville was penalised for an obstruction, with the Brumbies thinking they had scored a try, the Waratahs breathed a sigh of relief.
Instead of parking the bus, NSW marched down the other end and watched Jed Holloway bump off backtracking Brumbies to score a morale-boosting five-pointer.
James Slipper bagged a rare try on the stroke of half-time – he got another one in the second half – but NSW would have been thrilled with a 21-14 advantage given the carnage of the first half.
Three tries in a frenetic 15 minutes after the break, including two from NSW that began inside their own half, helped this game live up to the hype of years gone by.
“You feel stressed,” Coleman said. “Of course you do, I’m leading Australia’s biggest and proudest rugby province. At the moment you do feel it. It’s a losing shed, but it ain’t a losing shed. You know when you play shitty and the changeroom looks ordinary … it doesn’t feel like that.
“I know the boys are disappointed. They’re not whistling Dixie in there yet. They can walk out with their heads held high.”
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