A packed house at the Sydney Football Stadium to celebrate Matthew Burke becoming the most capped New South Welshman in Waratah history against our favourite bunnies, those Scarfies from some high-up place in New Zealand.
A game dominated by in the face defence, a factor which contributed to the frequent errors by both teams, it saw good scrummaging from both sides and some very woeful lineouts by the Waratahs, a team that has excelled in lineouts in many of their games this year. It was a fairly crucial game for both teams, previously locked on equal points near the top of the table at what is the beginning of the business half of the season.
There was a yellow card given to each side, Kelleher for stomping early and Tui'avi for ruck infringements late, both were fair in my book. Otago seemed to lack some composure in the game compared to some of their other performances, perhaps they felt that 100 years cannot be erased entirely by one win and were thus somewhat unsettled. The game was fairly tight in the first half, but the Tahs, buoyed by their home supporters, got away for a big win in the second half.
The win and the 5 points have put the Waratahs in a very healthy position, one point behind the Crusaders after both have enjoyed seven games. They move to 30 points, which, if I am not mistaken, is the equal of their (Tahs, not Crusaders) best-ever effort in Super 12, with 4 games remaining. The Brumbies are holding third after their loss to the Hurricanes on the weekend on 27 points and the Highlanders are in there, remaining on 25. The interesting thing about the top 5 is that both the Highlanders and Hurricanes have a bye yet to come and this fact could hurt them with the Reds doubtless hoping to be their traditional sneaky selves and slide into contention. Lousy sneaky Reds, I know who they plan to do their sneaking against too, but they've got no hope. (Oh for it to be true)
Fittingly, the match is kicked off by the man of the moment, Matt Burke to get things underway.
5mins - A penalty within kicking distance is slotted by Tony Brown for the Highlanders after a series of good play from them, which takes the score to 0-3. First blood Highlanders.
7min - Phil Waugh forces a penalty for holding onto a ball for the Tahs to have a chance to strike back inside the 22. True to NSW form of this year they elect to try for the lineout. The ball is lost and the Waratahs lose the next lineout from the Highlander clearance as well.
9min - Byron Kelleher is yellow carded for rucking a man after the whistle had well and truly gone. No real way to see it differently, he deserved his rest in the bin, especially as he stabbed at his target with his boot and refs tend to like to see you trying to do something more productive than that if you use the boot.
12min - The Highlanders have been defending well a man down and are now right on the attack. Mat Rogers gets the ball in the 22 and launches himself on a fantastic counter, busting through the line, but the good work is halted by an average pass that goes to ground. Not bad for a bloke that was in doubt from ankle injury though.
14min - The Tahs are awarded a penalty 5m out and on the right side of the ground. I want to see a scrum (I always want to see a scrum in this situation) but the Tahs stick to the game plan and go for the lineout.
15min - The situation above is repeated almost exactly. The game is currently being played deep into Highlanders territory and the Tahs have been leading the territory for most of the game. The pressure eventually leads to Stcherbina crossing in the 16th minute for a try which is converted by Burke. 7-3
18min - Matt Dunning puts a big tackle on a Highlander resulting in a Tahs penalty. If there is only one bloke who can do no wrong in the eyes of a Sydney crowd, then it is the big prop.
22min - The run of play has been going back and forth, with defence impressing more than attack. The Highlanders seize an opportunity to post a try through Steinmetz against what was for that minute the run of play. Don't think that I'm belittling Steinmetz's try though by calling it against the run of play, it was a great try and the Tahs were caught very flat footed by a Highlanders outfit that instantly seized an opportunity to counter. Brown converts and its 7-10.
26min - Ref penalises the Highlanders for not binding properly in the scrum. I decide he is being reasonably consistent as he penalised the Tahs for the same thing a few short minutes ago. I hate commenting on the ref as I know I'm biased as much as anyone, but I thought he had a good, if pedantic game. A bit more advantage and allowing rucks to play out at times wouldn't have gone astray though.
31mins - Desperate Highlanders defence keeps out what looked to be a Tahs try. They are doing a fair bit of defending at this stage.
33mins - Two minutes later McRae goes over for the Waratahs. He stepped through Brown (I think) near the line, to dot down under the sticks. Burke converts and its 14-10.
36mins - Brown goes for a long range penalty that puzzles me a bit as its 45m out or something and to the side somewhat and there are 4mins left in the half. He misses short.
Half Time - As we wind down to half time there is a vital Tahs turnover followed by an enormous Matt Burke clearance kick that defuses what could have been a dangerous situation for the home side and its still 14-10 at the break. The Waratahs have led in both possession and territory. Both teams have got in the face of the other in defence and this has contributed to the frequent handling errors and turnovers. Too many lost lineouts to the Tahs, an aspect of their game that was solid till Jono West got himself suspended. Both teams set a solid scrum.
2nd Half - Brown kicks off and the game is on. A minute into the half the Tahs concede a penalty and Brown gets a gift 3 points to slot over. The score is 14-13.
4min - The Waratahs manage to string 10 phases together and eventually force a penalty and I begin to breathe for the first time in the match as I realise they have steadily been stringing more phases together as the match has gone on. The crowd figure is announced and the fair-weather ring-ins have pushed the figure up to 35 and a half grand. Burke wisely takes the penalty at this point and the score is 17-13.
8min - Ref playing advantage to Highlanders but Matt Burke takes a screamer of an intercept. Naturally it is pulled back but he was away otherwise. Just as well I knew advantage was being played or kittens would have been had.
15min - Des Tui'avi does one of the more stupid things one can do by committing an obvious ruck infringement a scant few seconds after receiving a stern warning for the same thing. So its off with another idiot for ten and a chance for the Highlanders to get right back in.
19min - Stcherbina has a head clash with Phil Waugh and goes off injured. Later confirmed as having a cheek fracture but may still play next weekend.
21min - Rogers breaks the line wide open, again. What a good player he has been so far this year.
23min - Try Noriega. The Waratahs insistence on lineouts from penalties pays off with composure and patience giving a try. Converted Burke 24-13.
26min - Another almost intercept, this time by McRae. Soon after the Highlanders are penalised. Jeff Wilson has a big sook and is marched the ten metres he deserves. Matt Burke misses the penalty attempt with an awful kick. Waratahs are back to full strength but Tui'avi stays off.
28min - A couple of penalties sees the Highlanders down on the Tahs ten, but David Lyons who has been superb pulls off a great steal and McRae boots it downfield. Lyons will eventually be awarded the Man of the Match award.
37min - The game is beginning to wind down and eventually the Waratahs manage to go over again through Staniforth for the try and a bonus point. Converted by Burke and the final score is posted. 31-13. What started as a fairly tight tussle managed to blow out in the end to give the home side a fairly convincing win. At the very least it was one I'll gladly take against another form team of the competition.