Waratahs vs Blues: Five things we learned

Super Rugby
by Iain Payten

The Blues read Australian weather reports, enjoy scrumming on their own line and let's not diagnose rugby with coronavirus just yet.

What else are we talking about after the Waratahs' loss to the Blues?

PLAY THE CONDITIONS OR LOSE THE GAME

It wasn’t like there wasn’t enough warning.

All week we’d heard forecasts of foul weather hitting NSW on the weekend, and for the sports that don’t cancel when water falls from the sky, the necessary adjustments should have been clear.

Roll out your wet weather footy, and all the basic tactics and hard yakka that goes with it. A night for the purists, as they say in the classics.

And yet … the Waratahs appeared to not get Timmy Bailey’s memo.

For some reason, NSW kept trying to play dry weather footy in Newcastle with a soap-slick ball and the Blues were in no rush to stop them self-destructing.

The Kiwis kicked the ball to the Waratahs early and often, and went hard on the attack at the breakdown.

If the slippery ball didn’t do the job and yield a free NSW turnover, their pressure at the breakdown (often after a contested kick or some aggressive defence) did the trick.

"We had the forecast early in the week so we knew it was going to be pretty wet and potentially windy,” Blues Leon MacDonald said post-game.

"One of our learnings from the week before was we probably played a lot of rugby in the wrong end of the field and tonight we didn’t do that, which is pleasing obviously.”

Asked about the Waratahs’ ploy to use the ball, MacDonald said: "They must have seen an opportunity out wide, they definitely moved the ball around a little bit and at times they probably put us under pressure there.

"But the ball was a little bit greasy and we had enough energy to get off the line and get some critical turnovers at certain parts of the game. We felt like they were able to get a bit of momentum and we were able to turn the ball over.”

There was a concerning - and ultimately futile - trend over the last four years where Australian rugby thought it’s only way to win footy games was to run the ball.

As the kicking Kiwis prove time and again, it’s not. Playing what’s in front of you can also mean playing to the conditions and building pressure without the ball.

The art of kicking the ball increasingly feels like a lost one in Australian rugby.

SCRUM CONFUSION OVER CALL

There’s self-belief and then there’s choosing to put your head inside a lions’ mouth.

The Waratahs’ call to pack a scrum on the Blues line ten minutes into the second half was, according to Blues skipper Patrick Tuipolutu, doing the latter.

"I was a bit confused as to why they were taking a scrum,” a candid Tuipolutu said post-game.

The Waratahs had trailed by one at halftime, and though they’d let in two quick tries after halftime, the deficit was still only 13 by the 50th minute. A NSW try here and the Blues’ lead would be just six, with 30 minutes left on the clock.

The Waratahs won a penalty 10 metres out from the Blues’ line, straight in front.

Despite the fact the Blues had owned NSW in the scrum all night, the Tahs put their fists together. Let’s pack down.

"For us, down on our line, we bar up and gain more energy so for us to get the result we got there, we were pretty happy,” Tuipolutu said.

The Blues smashed NSW’s scrum, won a penalty and even rival coach Rob Penney conceded, “then got their tails up”.

The game wasn’t quite over, but the moment for the Waratahs to reverse the current of the game - mostly one-way in favour of the Blues - was gone.

Waratahs skipper Rob Simmons said he had “no regrets” post-game.

"There are moments we scrummed really well, and there are other moments that we didn’t. That’s pretty reflective of our game too,” he said.

"We did some good stuff and then we turned it over, or didn’t capitalise on the moment that was there.”

SNIFFLE OR CORONAVIRUS

In cold black ink, it looks bad. Particularly after the Brumbies have pulled two bad crowds and at a time when powerful corporate machines are keen to point out anything that resembles a sniffle in rugby’s health.

But it’s also hard to diagnose rugby with coronavirus based on the Waratahs registering their worst ever crowd at McDonald Jones Stadium.

If you were there, you knew why.

The weather was God-awful. Wet, cold and at a venue with bugger-all in the way of a grandstand roof.

Indeed, it’s a bit of a shock as many as 7491 turned up. They all deserve a personal thank you call from Harry Johnson-Holmes.

When it hammered down at about 4pm, that was the moment many decided it was a night for staying on the couch.

That said, you also can’t dismiss the fact people aren’t exactly flocking to Super Rugby games in any of the competition’s countries in 2020, so far.

Is it down to the fact that in years gone by, Super Rugby hadn’t even started yet?

Is it due to the fact cricket and rugby seasons proper should never overlap, no matter how many games need to be squeezed in?

Is it a pointer to the fact that no matter what happens with the new broadcast deal, Super Rugby - with bucketloads of the world’s best footballers inside it - needs some serious innovation to re-capture public attention?

All of the above.

IS TIGHTHEAD HOME FOR HARRY 

Is Harry Johnson-Holmes a tighthead prop?

The red-head from Newcastle has played no.3 as a junior but mostly loosehead at senior level, where his 111kg stretches a lot further.

This year, however, the Waratahs have switched HJH back to the tight and it was a baptism of fire against the Blues.

Up against 135 kilogram loosehead Karl Tu’Inukuafe and his back-up Ofa Tuungafasi - who is a much easier 130kg prop - Johnson-Holmes had his work cut out in a serious way.

There was no shortage of grit but it’s clear replacing Sekope Kepu is not going to be resolved overnight.

“It was a massive learning experience -  we have a lot of hope for Harry,” Waratahs coach Rob Penney said.

"He has come into that tighthead role after being a tighthead in the past, but spending a lot of time at loose-head more recently.

"He just needs time in the saddle. I keep saying that about a number of positions but that’s the reality.

We have to show faith. He will get there. He was up against some very good loose heads today.

He’ll be better for the experience.”

POSITIONING PLAYMAKERS

Kurtley Beale needs to get his hands on the ball more often at first receiver, but that doesn’t mean Will Harrison needs to be sidelined either.

Beale helped give the Waratahs some nice momentum in the second half, when he was called up from fullback and into the front line.

It would be tempting for NSW to put Beale into no.10, given his experience and game nous, but Harrison is a future Wallabies no.10 and taking him out of the team will only delay his necessary education; good and bad.

Perhaps the solution is to give Harrison more time at no.15. It is a position where a budding playmaker can, in fact, learn how a game unfolds, both with and without the ball.

The only problem? Fitting Jack Maddocks in, too.

Maddocks was impressive when he came on the field in the second half and a starting spot needs to be found for the returned Rebel.