With a big win in a critical derby game, and with oddly rare victories in milestone games for Michael Hooper and Jed Holloway, the Waratahs had every reason to celebrate after beating the Rebels at the SCG.
But Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson revealed the NSW dressing shed had been “really subdued” after an emotional week handling - and ultimately overcoming - the tumultuous departure of Israel Folau from their ranks.
The Rebels held a 20-7 lead at halftime after dominating the opening 40 minutes but a combination of the Melburnians’ ill-discipline and step-up performances from Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale saw the Waratahs slowly but surely claw their way back.
Through a combination of three penalties, a try and a conversion, Foley scored all of the Waratahs’ 16 points in the second half and with NSW defence holding firm on the other side of the coin, the home side took the victory 23-20.
It was the Waratahs’ third win at the SCG, and ensured they stayed in touch with the Rebels on the Australian conference ladder. Dave Wessel’s men missed another chance to kick clear by 11 or 12 points, and instead had to make do with a losing bonus point as they head into their second bye week.
The Rebels’ woe was compounded by the sight of star halfback Will Genia limping off with a knee injury, and a possible rib complaint too, but Wessells was optimistic it wasn’t overly serious.
For the Waratahs, the victory was proof positive there is life after Izzy. Beale was superb at fullback and along with Foley, the no.15 helped keep immense pressure on the Rebels in their half via the boot.
On a slippery night - and with intensity levels at a Spinal Tap level 11 - there was an enormous point of kicking. Sixty-eight kicks came in general play, in fact, as both sides sought to play out of their half.
Quade Cooper and Genia did it better in the first half but Foley and crew passed them by in the second, and set up another gritty win on the famous cricket venue.
"Overall it was a kick-fest wasn’t it? 68 kicks. Both teams came out with clear game plans to play territory and that conributred rto the game,” Gibson said post-match.
"At halftime I said to the boys we’d made two errors off the back of pressure and that was the difference between the two sides. Second half we dominated territory and played very cleverly.
"KB was a standout in that regard for us, I thought he kicked very cleverly and he kept the Rebels out of our area which was critical.
"And then slowly but surely we fought our way back into that game. I was really pleased with the grit we showed, particularly given the circumstances of the week.
"It was a really subdued changing room. It was a weird feeling, given we’d won the game. The boys, the emotion off the week and two come out with a win, it was good. But it was a strange feeling. It has just been an emotional week all around.”
Hooper directed his praise toward Foley and Beale, although he was typically strong and made a key turnover at the end of the game when NSW were defending their quarter - and a penalty would have produced a draw.
"I sat back at the end of the game and thought that was a real step up from our backline leaders and was really impressive from them to get good control of the game and deliver that for everyone,” he said.
“I am really satisfied.”
Wessels bemoaned a lack of smarts in the second half, and pointed to the bye week being a welcome one. The Rebels have lost two on the trot.
"That’s the story of the game. The first half we really attacked things, we had an attacking mindset, and and the second half we didn’t. It hurts a lot to be honest, that was a game we really wanted to win,” he said.
"From an effort point of view our guys were excellent. It feels very different to last week, the effort was there. Things just didn’t go our way in the early part of that second half and we probably didn’t concentrate as much as we should have.
"We are at the end of an eight-game block now and we had our travel to Africa in the middle and those kind of things. Because we had a bye in round two, we pretty much didn’t have a week off then either.
"So we have been pretty much going since the first ten weeks of the season pretty much continuously. Part of it is guys are pretty tired at the moment. It’s not an excuse but guys mentally were just a bit slower than we needed to be and we got caught on the hop in a few moments.”
Tries: Ashley-Cooper, Foley
Cons: Foley 2
Pens: Foley 3
Tries: Meakes, Hodge
Cons: Cooper 2
Pens: Cooper, Hodge