This is the year of the Waratahs
July 7, 2014
Waratahs 44-16 Highlanders (Australia only)
The Waratahs are the real deal, and they possess the required ingredients to win the 2014 Super Rugby title. They have the power, precision, combinations, back-up, levels of fitness, game breakers, defensive structure and attacking ingenuity to nullify the rest of the contenders, and that was all on show when they overwhelmed a considerable opponent - the Highlanders - to guarantee top spot, and the much cherished leg-up of home semi-finals, for the first time in 19 years of Super Rugby football.
So why, after such a consummate performance to defeat the Highlanders 44-16, are so many people anticipating the Waratahs will suffer an almighty fall over the next few weeks? Why is there reluctance around Sydney for anyone to bellow "This is the year of the Waratahs"?
That has to do with the tarnished Waratahs image: they are, after all, historically the masters of endlessly wasting great opportunities; it is an embarrassment that Australia's largest rugby province does not boast a Super Rugby title, but the franchise has only itself to blame for mismanagement and constant loss of focus.
But this season, there has been a massive transformation.
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has succeeded in changing a franchise for so long boasting an unenviable reputation for being a lazy pipe-and-slippers gentlemen's club into a brutal professional outfit that is not sidetracked, and completely focused on achievement and success. How they train is how they play. Hard work is being rewarded.
The Waratahs have for so long been fragmented, but this year they are at last sticking solid. That may have had a lot to do with the sometimes abrasive Cheika and co ensuring the Harry Handshakers from head office have this season been kept at a distance; the same officials in the past have provided unnecessary distractions.
Jacques Potgieter is among the key reasons for the Waratahs' success in 2014 © Getty Images
Even more importantly, the Waratahs are again worth watching, and worth committing to. Cheika and his players have stuck to their edict expressed at the start of the season of wanting to entertain, of wanting to expand their play, and wanting spectators to be convinced they are worth following. They are definitely a value-for-money outfit.
Unlike the other Australian teams vying for finals spot, who have endlessly exasperated the rugby public by too often taking the safety-first option of booting away possession and preying on opposition mistakes, the Waratahs have constantly taken risks.
The Tahs have played at pace. They have used their attacking weapons. They have mixed ruthless forward play, especially when cleaning up at the breakdown, with rich backline manoeuvres that as the season has progressed have seen Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Alofa Alofa, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Rob Horne succeed in weaving their magic to produce a constant stream of enlightening tries.
Cheika warns Tahs of finals furnace (video available in Australia only)%]
And the pack has provided the exact platform. Their work at the breakdown has been exemplary, constantly cleaning out the opposition through sheer force, and guaranteeing fast recycled possession that has made adventure that much easier to undertake. The scrum is winning tight heads at crucial moments, such as the 64th minute of the game against the Highlanders.
Through that, the Waratahs players have become comfortable with each other, and confident - especially at No.10. The longer the season has gone on, the better Foley has become; and no one needs reminding that every Super Rugby title victor has had a quality pivot. For Foley to produce his best performance just two weeks out from the finals is ideal timing; his eagerness to constantly attack the line, and his ability to provide his backs with near-perfect service, were major factors in the Waratahs finishing 28 points ahead of the Highlanders.
So comes the luxury of playing at home at finals time. So no excuses!
But that won't stop Waratahs followers, so accustomed to being burned, from spending the next few weeks with head in hands, nervously peeking the occasional look. Such is the Curse of the Tah Tah Tahs.
Taqele Naiyaravoro announced himself to the world off the bench against the Highlanders © Getty Images
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