Bitter sweet night in Canberra
March 2, 2009
The Force's Matt Giteau tackles the Brumbies' Stirling Mortlock during their Super 14 clash in Canberra © Getty Images
Round three of Super 14 centred all on one man - Matt Giteau. With news that the Wallabies pivot will return to Canberra after three (lucrative) years in the West, the derby between the Force and Brumbies on Saturday night took on another dimension.
Despite the impressive 25-16 result for the Force, including a three-try haul for Cameron Shepherd in his comeback from a broken leg, it was a bitter-sweet night for under-fire coach John Mitchell.
Enjoying Giteau tear apart a poor Brumbies outside defence would surely have been tempered knowing the jewel in his crown is quickly slipping from his grip.
In contrast, Brumbies coach Andy Friend's angst at his team's performance would have been offset with the knowledge that next season he will have Giteau supplying the likes of Stirling Mortlock, Mark Gerrard and Adam Ashley-Cooper, in one of the most potent backlines, not just in Australia, but in the southern hemisphere.
Giteau's departure from the Force is likely to cause an exodus as several other key international players, such as Drew Mitchell, reportedly already looking for a return eastwards. With many of the Force players off-contract at the end of the season, the house of cards built on a torrent of cash from former benefactor, Firepower, now looks decidedly flimsy.
It doesn't seem that long ago when the sun was smiling on Perth. The Force enjoyed large crowds, strong corporate support and ARU salary cap exemptions to lure some of the country's best talents away from the rugby strongholds of the eastern seaboard. Since then the money train has derailed and the franchise is now fighting for its life in the Australian Rugby landscape.
It's not all good news in Canberra either. Worryingly for the Brumbies, their usually mean defence has leaked 10 tries in just three games, one of the worst records in the competition. This will need to be urgently addressed by Friend as they simply lack the attacking weapons to overcome a three-try (on average) deficit each match.
While the Brumbies and Force face their own dilemmas, life looks pretty good in Waratah-land. Captain Phil Waugh celebrated his 100th Super Rugby cap with the Waratahs third consecutive win of the season and a spot in the top two. It's just yet another milestone in an impressive career of the Wallabies and NSW stalwart. Seemingly on the outer of Robbie Deans' plans at present, it would be a body blow for the local game should Waugh, at only 29-years of age, feels he needs to leave these shores to further his career.
It's simply been bad luck that his career has run parallel to another of the world's great flankers in George Smith. The Wallabies certainly have been blessed that two juniors from the Northern beaches in Sydney would become two of the greatest openside flankers in the professional era.
As for the Waratahs, they've been solid, yet not spectacular in their opening three matches. While some have been quick to criticise the standard of their play, I would be quite concerned if the Tahs were peaking already. Certainly they haven't been setting the world alight in their opening three matches, but importantly they have won them and have set themselves up for a decent tilt at an elusive Super 14 crown.
The signs against the Highlanders show they are moving in the right direction though. Four tries against New Zealand opposition in two out of three matches is certainly the form a demanding Sydney public want to see. Their home form, now at nine on the trot, is the best in the competition. It's the type of run reminiscent of a certain Cantabrian outfit for most of this decade, and we all know who the architect of that was!
However, to win a Super 14 title you must win regularly on the road and it doesn't get much tougher for a NSW team than against the Queensland Reds. The great aspect of this matchup is that the form guide can be thrown out the window. It won't matter that the Reds are looking up from mid table as they relish being the underdog in this contest.
No doubt Reds coach Phil Mooney looked for this fixture before all others at the start of the season and would be licking his lips at the opportunity of getting one up on his southern counterpart. For Chris Hickey, it's a nervous time. While he boasts an in form side that on paper should have no difficulties with a young Reds outfit, the 'State of the Union' clash is never just clear cut.
The young Reds, bolstered by a last-up win against the Cheetahs in Brisbane, will feel they have nothing to lose against the Waratahs in Sydney, a volatile cocktail for Hickey. Throw in the mix three of Giteau's prime Wallabies understudies, Kurtley Beale, Berrick Barnes and Quade Cooper, going head-to-head and there's certainly a lot at stake come Saturday for both club and country.
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