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A disallowed try in the closing stages has prevented the HSBC Waratahs from ending a season of promise on a high going down 14-12 to the Queensland Reds in Sydney on Saturday night.
Despite outscoring the Reds by two tries to one, the home side was unable to capitalise on a number of late chances that would have seen them reclaim the Templeton Cup for the first time since 2011.
Head Coach Michael Cheika after the game, “I’m obviously very disappointed. The first half was punctuated by mistakes and everyone getting back into the swing of things. The second half I thought we did OK, we started to string a bit of play together. Still dropped a bit of ball and gave a few bad passes but through our effort [the Reds] weren’t really in it apart from those two penalties.
“There were opportunities at the end there we should’ve finished, we didn’t capitalise on them and we were made to pay. This year we’ve had a bit of a theme – score more tries (than the opposition) but don’t score our goals. We’re still in the infancy of learning how to win so we’ll need to make sure we can carry those lessons over to next time.”
Despite the result, Cheika praised the team’s tenacity, as his players mounted wave after wave of attack in the closing stages. “It showed excellent character from the guys. They could’ve easily said ‘look it’s the end of the season’ but they really wanted to win. There’s been a clear shift in attitude and work ethic around the club. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback in terms of our style and the effort we’re putting in, not only on the field but around the club.”
The loss marked the final appearance in blue for Sitaleki Timani, John Ulugia, Tom Kingston and Berrick Barnes. It was also the 187th and final match of NSW’s 12-year partnership with HSBC.
Although it was their opponents who got on the scoreboard first, Quade Cooper’s penalty was quickly offset from the ensuing restart, with James Slipper spilling the ball forward and gifting the HSBC Waratahs a valuable midfield scrum. The home side went on the attack through Brendan McKibbin, with the scrumhalf turning a beautiful ball back inside to fullback Cam Crawford, who crashed through three defenders to dot down under the posts. McKibbin converted an easy shot from in front and the HSBC Waratahs led 7-3 with only 13 minutes gone.
The Reds looked to have hit back five minutes later, when scrumhalf Nick Frisby burst through the line down the right. But play was called back, as TMO George Ayoub ruled his transfer to winger Rod Davies had travelled forward.
The visitors made amends minutes later, when Cooper floated a wide ball over the NSW defence for fullback Ben Lucas to cross in the left corner. Cooper missed the sideline conversion, leaving the Reds with only a one point buffer midway through the half.
The complexion of the match took another turn just five minutes later, when referee Steve Walsh adjudged that hooker John Ulugia had failed use his arms in big tackle on Davies. Although the crowd was vocal in its objection to a contentious decision, Ulugia was sent to the sin bin and at the next scrum minutes later, the HSBC Waratahs were forced to bring on replacement hooker Luke Holmes in place of Jed Holloway.
Although conceding a numerical advantage, the home were the next to score, when McKibbin pounced on a misdirected inside pass from Quade Cooper to dash 50m downfield and set up Berrick Barnes for a try in the right corner. Although the scrumhalf failed to add the extras, the home side entered the sheds with a four point lead.
The tight scoreline lent itself to a jittery second stanza, with both sides forced into error in the face of bruising defence. Cooper punctuated these tense exchanges with two further penalty goals, and the Reds snuck into a 12-14 lead with only a quarter of the game remaining.
Spurred on by their largest crowd of the regular season, NSW held the ball through successive phases to set an attacking platform in the Reds’ 22. Their patience looked to have been rewarded when man of the match Michael Hooper burst through two tackles and crossed in the corner, but Frisby managed to dislodge the ball in a desperate covering tackle.
Despite the setback, Dave Dennis and his men showed a fierce determination and, after a string of 13 attacking phases highlighted by a line break from Benn Robinson, Barnes fell back into the pocket in the hope of to claiming victory after the siren. But it was not to be – as defensive pressure from the Reds saw Barnes strike the ball off balance, skewing the drop goal attempt to the right and leaving NSW players and fans to settle for a disappointing loss to an otherwise promosing season.
Queensland Reds 14 (tries: Lucas; pens: Cooper 3) def HSBC Waratahs 12 (tries: Crawford, Barnes; cons: McKibbin)
Half-time: HSBC Waratahs 12 – 8 Reds
HSBC Waratahs: 1. Benn Robinson (Eastwood) 2. John Ulugia (Eastern Suburbs) 3. Sekope Kepu (Randwick) 4. Sitaleki Timani (Southern Districts) 5. Kane Douglas (Southern Districts) 6. Jed Holloway (Southern Districts) 7. Michael Hooper (Manly) 8. Dave Dennis (Sydney University, captain) 9. Brendan McKibbin (Eastern Suburbs) 10. Bernard Foley (Sydney University) 11. Peter Betham (Sydney University) 12. Berrick Barnes (Sydney University) 13. Rob Horne (Southern Districts) 14. Tom Kingston (Sydney University) 15. Cam Crawford (Northern Suburbs)
Replacements: 16. Luke Holmes (Warringah) 17. Jeremy Tilse (Sydney University) 18. Will Skelton (Sydney University) 19. Mitchell Chapman (Eastern Suburbs) 20. Pat McCutcheon (Sydney University) 21. Matt Lucas (Manly) 22. Ben Volavola (Southern Districts)
Queensland Reds: 1. Greg Holmes 2. Saia Faingaa 3. James Slipper (captain) 4. Ed O’Donoghue 5. Rob Simmons 6. Eddie Quirk 7. Liam Gill 8. Jake Schatz 9. Nick Frisby 10. Quade Cooper 11. Luke Morahan 12. Mike Harris 13. Ben Tapuai 14. Rod Davies 15. Ben Lucas
Replacements: 16. Albert Anae 17. Jono Owen 18. Radike Samo 19. Jarrad Butler 20. Beau Robinson 21. Jono Lance 22. Dom Shipperley
Yellow cards: John Ulugia (26th min)
Referee: Steve Walsh