For followers of the Waratah’s fortunes, the last two games have been critical indicators as to whether last year’s malaise was a bump in the road, or a downward trend.
The last minute win against the Reds last week papered over an uninspiring performance, but this weekend’s shellacking in Capetown (27-6 to the Stormers) exposed a new development in the Waratahs game that is as worrying as it is un-Tahlike.
In 2009, the pack on its own came within a try of getting NSW into the finals; it wasn’t until the last games that the back-line gained any fluidity. In 2010 the problem is far worse; the much vaunted pack is a pale imitation of previous years, and the transition between it and the new look backline is nothing short of abysmal.
I settled into watching a replay of the match (no thanks to Skysports UK) fearing a keystone cops, having been strongly warned on twitter. As @RugbyRiddler tweeted: Cut your toes off with an angle grinder. It’s more pleasurable, easier to bear – and you wont need to do it again next week.
But for the first 5 minutes I wondered what all the fuss was about. The Tahs got off to an electric start, Mitchell making two linebreaks (Shmoo had a great game with what little he was give, why the fuck was he subbed at 60 min for Halangahu, causing a total backline reshuffle?) and TPN coming within a metre of the line through surging runs.
For the rest of the game it wasn’t a clear backline calamity. The Tahs made 80% of their tackles, and missed half as many as the Stormers. I’d also say that, sorry Queenslanders, Berrick Buns did well with what he was given. Had he still been in maroon lip-stick red, Marto would have had to change his undies over the “check-side punts” Buns hoofed around the paddock with aplomb.
The problem was what ball he was given. It was, in a word, shit.
The Tahs have caught Pommy Rugby Detritus, or as it is commonly known, “turning fast ball slow”. The root cause of it was that they lost the battle of the breakdown, being turned over 8 times (vs 3). The light blues seem to think that the new laws will stop any opposition player from even approaching a ruck. There might be some new fangled interpretation on the tackler, but that’s not going to stop the three other Jaapies from walking through the middle.
This convenient delusion might stem from the fact that Phil Waugh is now playing like a midget 6. The aggression and leadership still abounds, but the pace onto the ball is gone. It might also compounded by the second row merry-go-round in the pack; full-back Sosene Anesi hit as many rucks (9) as all four locks who made the paddock over the 80 combined. They also couldn’t time a scrum engagement for toffee.
So the pack weren’t helping recycling, but if there is anything boiling my blood and exacerbating the problem, it’s the new Matt Dawson-esque ruck base antics of Luke Burgess. When he burst onto the scene 2 years ago, it was the infeasible speed at which he was hoofing the ball out of rucks that hadn’t even got around to starting that sparked a Tahs renaissance. Now, he’s doing an impersonation of a meerkat, individually counting the opposition players, ball boys and camera men behind the ruck before setting up a runner to get smashed behind the gain line.
But as the video shows, it’s not just him. Holmes did the same, if not worse, when he came on. Which can only make me think that this is someone’s brainchild. A bastard, malingering, incontinent, ginger child. With defences not needing to commit to the breakdown, only pacey pill has any chance and what looks like a half decent Tahs backline, isn’t getting any. Phase re-setting is one thing, these glacial delays give NFL continuity by comparison.
The Tahs have won 1 from 2 on the road, but with thinking like this, a finals spot is looking as likely as Berrick staying injury free all season.
Put his hand up: Drew Mitchell – looked sharp both running and kicking with the chances he was given
Did himself no favours: Phil Waugh – punchiness is no replacement for speed on the ball
Bolter watch: Ben Mowen – athletic and industrious