A man-of-the-match performance from replacement Berrick Barnes has lifted the HSBC Waratahs to a nail-biting 28-22 victory over the Brumbies at ANZ Stadium.
In a pulsating local derby, Barnes inspired a second-half fight back, as the home side scored three tries after the break to run down the conference-leading Brumbies. Significantly, the win also marked the first time since 2011 that the province has recorded three wins in a row.
Head Coach Michael Cheika was pleased with his side’s resolve under pressure, coming back from a testing first half to notch up an impressive win.
“In the first half we couldn’t get to where we wanted to be on the field. We just had to believe that if we got to where we wanted to attack then we could get something out of it. And once we could change our shape in that second half we were able to find gaps out wide,” he said.
Cheika attributed his side’s dramatic reversal in the second half to the injection of playmaker Barnes, saying, “Berrick changed the shape of the game for us, and he gave [Bernard] Foley a bit more room to move as well… and obviously he kicked well too which was important for us.”
The home side struggled to find momentum early on, losing enforcer Kane Douglas to a head knock in just the second minute of the match. The Brumbies pounced on the home side’s disrupted start, with Christian Lealiifano nailing a penalty goal to give his side a 0-3 lead after eight minutes.
Although the subsequent restart went out on the full, a dominant performance by NSW at scrum time gave halfback Brendan McKibbin a chance to hit back quickly. His booming penalty from the halfway line reined in an early Brumbies lead.
The Brumbies countered soon after and, after 12 phases of attacking pressure, the HSBC Waratahs line eventually cracked, sending captain Ben Mowen crashing over for the first try of the game. A miss from Lealiifano left the score at 3-8 after 22 minutes.
The end-to-end rugby continued, as an offload from inside centre Rob Horne sent winger Drew Mitchell through the Brumbies line and deep into the attacking zone. The momentum reaped dividends, with the Brumbies adjudged offside several phases later by referee Steve Walsh. McKibbin calmly converted his second penalty and in the process reduced the deficit to just two points.
But when Kuridrani pounced on a charge down in the 36th minute, the lead extended to 13-6. While fullback Jesse Mogg failed to add the conversion, the HSBC Waratahs lost inspirational hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau to a forearm injury, replaced by John Ulugia.
Although conceding 60% of possession and 67% of territory in the first half, the home side entered the break just seven points adrift of a determined Brumbies outfit. Cheika made several changes during the break, with Barnes replacing Horne and Matt Lucas taking the field in place of McKibbin.
Their injection paid immediate dividends, with Barnes offered an early shot at goal in the second half, only to have his attempt hit the left upright.
The Wallabies playmaker made amends soon after, floating a beautiful ball out wide to Michael Hooper, who sprinted 20m to dive over in the corner. Barnes then levelled the scores at 13-all, nailing an impressive conversion from out wide.
A bust soon after from Adam Ashley-Cooper sent the HSBC Waratahs back into scoring territory and, after 15 phases of attacking pressure, Barnes was rewarded with his first three-pointer of the game.
The game then swung back in the Brumbies’ favour, as three penalties in the space of 10 minutes from the boot of fullback Jesse Mogg gave the visitors the ascendency going into the final stages of the match.
Under pressure to salvage a result, Hooper returned the favour for his earlier try, offloading to send Barnes into space down the right hand side. The talented playmaker burrowed under several scrambling defenders for his team’s second try and then narrowly shaved the uprights to bring Dennis’s men to within one point.
The HSBC Waratahs playmaking duo continued to wreak havoc on the visitors, as a wide pass from Bernard Foley found the electric Peter Betham in space. The dynamic winger eluded two Brumbies defenders on his way to the try line and a four point advantage. Barnes slotted his second conversion to nudge the home side a further two points ahead and to their largest lead of the match.
With two minutes to go, and in a need of a converted try, the Brumbies ensured a frenetic finish when they were awarded an attacking lineout deep in the NSW 22. Although the visitors set an impressive rolling maul, desperate defence saw the home side spoil the attacking momentum and hold on for a critical 28-22 victory.