Defence wins championships.
That's the mantra ringing in the ears of NSW players this week ahead of their semi-final in South Africa but it didn’t come from coaching gurus Michael Cheika, Craig Bellamy or Kevin Sheedy.
It came from a quietly-spoken Waratah who played under all three, and on the biggest stages of three of Australia’s major footy codes.
“Israel has been hounding on it all week that defence will win games,” Waratahs lock Jed Holloway said on Wednesday from Johannesburg.
“Israel has played on a lot of big stages and for me, his voice has been one of the most important over the last two weeks.
“Because he has such a calming demeanour but when he says something, and he doesn’t really say something often, but when he does it means a lot.
“And that’s what he’s been saying the last few weeks, about our defence and about how those defensive situations win those big games. It is definitely a focus area for us.”
The Waratahs surged into the semi-final last weekend on the strength of a three-try second half that saw them rally from a 17-point deficit and sweep past the Highlanders down the stretch.
The attack was sizzling but Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson quickly diverted the praise to the NSW defence, which was shaky in the first half but turned into a brick wall in the second.
The Waratahs didn’t concede a point, despite the Highlanders having 70 per cent possession and attacking the line for long periods.
Holloway said the Tahs’ defence was slightly disconnected in the first half but the fix had actually come via the Waratahs fixing their ball retention, and finally clicking in attack.
“What Bernard (Foley) said in the sheds at half-time, about leaving nothing out there, the way we turned that around is by holding onto the ball,” Holloway said.
“Once we get into the flow of things, we are supremely confident. I think you saw that once we started to get things rolling in the second half.
"Our defence really lit up on the back of that. The way we wanted to play all year was most evident in the second half and that’s the way we want to play this weekend as well."
The Waratahs will trust in the same mix this weekend, with the talent of “one of the world’s best backlines” scoring points and a team defensive effort stopping the Lions from posting points in reply.
That’ll be a tough ask - the Lions are the second-most potent attacking team in the comp - and NSW lost 29-0 in their regular season meeting in Sydney in round 10. It was the first time the Waratahs had ever been held scoreless.
Defending against the Lions will be a different prospect to stopping the Highlanders, too, believes Holloway.
“They (the Highlanders) are very erratic and play what’s in front of them but we are expecting the Lions to try and run over us and try and bully us, like a typical South African side. But they also have that bit of flair and love to play rugby as well,” Holloway said.
“We have just been focussing as a forward pack and to front up in that area, and shut down their key guys. Malcolm Marx has been huge for them.”
The Waratahs lineout wobbles last weekend aren’t stressing the forward pack too much. Holloway said the problems had been related to timing and detail.
“Cronny has been all over that and he’s massive on detail,” Holloway said.
“We are doing walk throughs in the hotel hallways and guys are over that detail. Because if you look at them, it’s other timing issues or over throws. Nothing that can’t be fixed quite quickly.”
The Waratahs take on the Lions in the Super Rugby semi-finals on Saturday night. Watch LIVE on FoxSports from 10.30pm.