Rugby
Brittany Mitchell, ESPN Assistant Editor 33d

Waratahs overcome Israel Folau distraction, show potential without linchpin

Rugby, Super Rugby

Without one of their biggest stars, the Waratahs were always going to be under the pump to make up for the absence of Israel Folau, but with their impressive second half turnaround to seal a 23-20 win, the side showed they could step up without their linchpin.

In the lead up to the Waratahs' final game at the SCG for 2019, eyes around the rugby world were on Folau and his team following his controversial Instagram post.

Stood down indefinitely, Folau's teammates had plenty on their minds heading into a must win clash against the Rebels, and while they struggled to implement a Folau-less game plan early, the comeback showed their potential without him.

Forced into a reshuffle with Kurtley Beale pushed into fullback and Karmichael Hunt moved to inside centre, there was a noticeable lack of Bernard Foley kick-passes as Beale provided glimpses of impressive midfield penetration. But simple dropped balls and a rudderless game plan in the first half put the side in a hole early on.

Folau's absence was noticeable as the Tahs appeared erratic and struggled to produce much structure in the first half.

Forced back into their own half for much of the first 40 minutes, the Tahs looked fractured with the forwards and backline appearing disjointed, while poor handling and loose carries squandered many of the Tahs' opportunities.

The Rebels easily pinned back the hosts and controlled much of the possession, forcing New South Wales to work off scraps while Foley struggled to find his footing with the fragmented play.

Both sides had a clear strategy to kick deep and play away from their own half, with 68 kicks made, and Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson thought it was Beale's kicking game that proved the difference between the two sides.

"Overall, it was a kickfest," Gibson said post-game. "Both teams came out with clear game plans, we were going to play territory and that contributed to the game. At halftime I said to the boys we'd made two errors off the back of some pressure and that was the difference between the two sides.

"I thought we controlled the ball and dominated territory for large parts. KB was a standout in that regards for us. I thought he kicked very cleverly and kept the Rebels out of our area which was critical."

The old adage of a game of two halves came into play when a fired up Tahs returned to the field in the second half to score 16 unanswered points; Foley stepping up to lead the charge.

In almost a complete reversal for both sides the Tahs found plenty of possession and territory, with Beale and Foley using experience to take control of the game and change up their game plan. In contrast, the Rebels faltered and succumbed to poor discipline, giving away seven consecutive penalties.

"We had a game plan and it sort of wasn't really working," Waratahs captain Michael Hooper said following the win. "So I'm really happy, particularly with Bernard and KB, some of our leaders there in the backline and how those guys went about their business at halftime.

"The direction they gave the whole team to come out there in the second half and get the job done. I sat back at the end of the game and thought that's a real step up from some of the backline leaders, and really impressive for them to get a good control of the game and deliver for everyone."

Facing a 13-point deficit heading into the second half, Beale and Foley stole the show as they both took control of the messy affair. Beale's kicking proved pivotal to the side as they ate away at the Rebels' territory, while Foley produced the equalising try by beating Quade Cooper in contact for an overthrow at a Rebels lineout to streak away untouched.

According to Gibson, Beale and Foley's second half set up were all part of the Tahs' new identity.

"We're finding a way. We're finding our identity and we're finding a game style that suits us, as strange as it is to say half way through the competition. But we've had this realization that we are a different side, we have different strengths. During that bye period we reflected on where we need to go as a team and how we can win games."

Despite the win bringing life back into their campaign, the cloud of controversy that had hung around the side for two weeks was still apparent, with Gibson describing the post-match change room as "strange".

"I was very pleased with the grit we showed, particularly given the circumstances of the week. It was a very subdued changing room. It's a weird feeling, we'd won the game... but the emotion of the week. It's a strange feeling."

An important win for the Waratahs, they return back to second place in the Australian conference and close the gap on the Rebels.

But with three big games ahead the Folau cloud could continue to linger.

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