Off to the Sydney Football Stadium for the first NSW Super 12 home game for the year. It had been raining most of the week preceding, but Sydney managed to put on a fine night for the game. And the weather wasn't the only fine thing that evening...
My first impression after handing over my $15 and wandering in, was that the pitch was nicely browned in a pattern that closely resembled the layout of the talented and lovely Barbara Streisand's concert props from the preceding week's shows. The massive roof constructed for her to fit under in her entirety was still down one end of the ground, a big black reminder of what football grounds are 'really' built for. The commentators were heard to say later, after I returned home for the replay, that the pitch was in remarkably good condition. It was in good condition true, for what was done to it, but still looked unattractive. Should be right for next weekend.
Kick-off saw the immediate commencement of a kicking duel, which went on a trifle too long for the liking of most. This was followed by some fairly electric play from the NSW backline, setting up a penalty attempt for Matthew Burke which he duly missed, his first and only miss of the evening. The Cats posted first points with a penalty goal attempt of their own. The Waratahs responded in the best way possible with a converted try. Then penalties were traded for a while. Even a natural worrier of a supporter like me realised that the Waratahs had the better of the run of play.
The NSW forward pack looked better than previously in the scrums though still not ideal, and was formidable in open play and at the breakdowns. John Welborn and Tiaan Strauss had blinders in this regard, Tiaan despite some blemishes. He was in everything, he had to make 'some' mistakes.
Then, as is usual when forwards sweat and work to provide ungrateful and overly pretty backs with quality ball, for the purpose of attacking the opposition, the NSW backs decided it might be fun to drop said ball. A lot. The Cats, not wanting to be left out, decided they could employ this new tactic as well and managed it in almost as much style as NSW.
So it was at half-time when some lucky punter won a signed Waratah jersey (that's alright, I have a Wallaby one from last year's Stadium Australia thumping of the All Blacks hanging on my wall to keep me happy). A trio of hooligans wearing sumo suits was employed to entertain the crowd with their rugby abilities. At least they could hold the ball with more skill than the Waratahs. I was considerably more entertained by my fellow spectators though. The complete lack of 'beer skills' of those around me coming back from the bar with drinks (I don't often drink at the rugby, I tend to do one or the other as I take both seriously). Though this is not normally associated with the highly beer skilled SFS crowd, the amount of beer being spilt during the 'returning to seats with four beers in a flimsy tray' process was staggering. Very poor form indeed. People just don't appreciate beer anymore. Kind of matched the action on the field. Perhaps there was a vibe in the air. Said entertainment served to while away the long minutes until the second half commenced.
The dropsies trend continued into the second half and it was starting to look like NSW may not get their bonus point after all. Indeed, if a few lucky points went to the Cats at this stage, or they picked up their game, a bonus point may have been all the Waratahs would have gotten. Or nothing.
Eventually, however, going into the final quarter, they managed to maintain possession through a few pairs of hands and one or two tackles and the inevitable try was scored because of it, by Dowling if I remember. I started to feel confident about a victory since the Cats didn't look like scoring too many tries, especially as they were starting to look tired. I began contemplating the possibility of a bonus point again. Not long after, I was a lot more confidant of it. Three tries to the Waratahs. The Cats were looking more tired, just as the Waratahs were kicking it up a gear and starting to get the hands gripping the ball again.
The floodgates then opened and the bonus-point try was scored from the freakish soccer-skills of Matt Burke (I think that was this try, there were so many I may have lost track :-). But whenever it actually occurred, it was freakish and resulted in a try.) The Cats got a try from a generous video ref after finally getting past some excellent NSW last ditch defence. The ball looked a bit short of the line to me, but it was a very difficult call to make and I know I'm biased, so I guess I'll say probably a fair try. The Waratahs then quickly knocked up the remainder of the points needed to match the Brumbies' score of the night before (Big congratulations to a red-hot looking Brumbies side) and dispose convincingly of the Cats.
The referee and his merry men copped their due share of flak from the crowd, some richly deserved, most probably not and some definitely not. Jason Little's disallowed try looked alright to me, but again I am biased and forced to admit that it was a marginal pass at best, so erring on the side of caution, I will say the ref got that right. I'll even say the touch judge got the call right early on from the chip kick that just clipped the sideline and denied another try. I thought that was out the first time I saw it looking down that line, and every replay I saw convinced me more. The SFS crowd did not share my opinion. The ref missed a Cats knock-on or two and gave a couple of decisions each way that had me a little mystified (most of which were cleared up when I saw the replay later on), but probably had a better game than the crowd gave him credit for. That's what refs are for though. The crowd was pretty well-behaved otherwise, quiet for the kicks (except one of Matt Burke's where they screamed and whistled, which had me mystified a little since this is NSW after all) and showed the Cats respectful hospitality (hostility? I can never remember which is which :-)) for the most part.
Hard but fair play (no major infringements) from the Waratahs and indeed the Cats also, as it should always be. Good scrummaging from the Cats and short periods of looking convincingly dangerous (I'm struggling to say nice things). Unfortunately for them this was punctuated by all-too-long periods of lacklustre performance. This was compared to good forwards play by NSW at the breakdowns and in open play, good defence and a dangerous attacking line which nonetheless dropped the ball all too often. Too many penalties conceded for varied infringements. Needs work. I don't think I will find too many to disagree with me if I say that NSW should have won by considerably more. Apologies to any smarting Cats fans, but NSW managed to shoot themselves in the foot through a combination of slightly poor discipline and never having learned to hold onto a rugby ball while they were juniors. Still, even hopping on one foot, they were good enough to tame the Cats convincingly.
Crowd figures of 21 000 of a possible 40 000. Needs work, but I'm doing my part....
If they keep this up and lose the mistakes, I may just start believing that they have the ability to win the comp. this year. Stuff it, I'm going for broke and officially upgrading from 'resigned to a rebuilding year' to 'hopeful of a respectable performance'. Any wins against a Kiwi team, other than the Blues (What's that? Bring on March 24, eh Fitzy?), and I shall have to upgrade my expectations dramatically. Maybe then we can have that fourth Super 12 team. Surely it doesn't look good for SA's bid to get a fifth.
Ever optimistic, that's me. Forgive my waffle, it was a productive two and a half hours.