Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson admitted there was still a ‘What if?’ hanging over their Super Rugby season, after being ‘overpowered’ by the Lions in their semi-final.
The Waratahs lost to the Lions in Johannesburg in their first semi-final since 2015, completing a swift on and off-field turnaround.
Though their improvement has been quick, a round 19 loss against the Brumbies still sticks out as the night they gave up an advantage that may have seen them through to next week’s final.
With a quarter-final spot locked up one week out from finals, the Waratahs had a chance to secure second overall and semi-final hosting rights with a win over the Brumbies.
A shock loss that night ultimately meant they had to travel to Africa for Saturday’s final rather than potentially hosting the Lions in Sydney.
Gibson admitted there was an element of sliding doors left in their season but they couldn’t dwell on that.
“We'll always look back on the season and go ,'What if?',” he said.
“But for our team, we've had to battle hard all year to earn our way to this point and we've played pretty much the same team week in, week out. So, I can forgive our guys for having an off night.
“They were already in the quarters and achieved one of their goals but certainly that's one thing we'll look back on and go, it could've been different.”
Putting aside the hypothetical situationss, Gibson said the Lions outmuscled the Waratahs on Saturday.
“I felt their scrum, the lineout maul at times was overpowering today and they thoroughly deserved their victory,” Gibson said.
“We know the Lions are a very good team from the 20-minute mark.
“We were always undersized against the Lions.
“I'm incredibly proud with what they put in but just at times the Lions won the big moments in terms of those mauling tries they were able to capitalise on and particularly through that yellow card period.”
Waratahs captain Bernard Foley echoed Gibson’s praise of a pack punching above its weight.
“I think the forwards, they showed up every time we asked of them this year and they maybe understrength but still the application was incredible.”
“We've fought all year with the men we have and I'm incredibly proud with what we have.
Foley said there was as much a sense of pride in his squad as there was disappointment in their season being over.
“I can't ask for more in terms of their effort there tonight,” he said.
“They put in for each other and that, from a captain's point of view, as proud as I can be for a team that just wants to play for each other.
“We're utterly disappointed that we didn't make it to next week or give us the chance to win the cup next week but from a squad's point of view, I've been exceptionally proud to represent them and to lead them.”
The Waratahs will return to Sydney on Sunday, before the Test squad members link up with the Wallabies ahead of the first Bledisloe Cup Test.