A “roller-coaster” Super Rugby AU season is over for a NSW Waratahs side who have now failed to make finals in four of the past five years after the Melbourne Rebels’ heart-stopping get-out-of-jail 34-30 victory against the Western Force.
The cheers would have reverberated around Waratahs headquarters on Saturday afternoon when the group, watching together over a barbecue, saw the Force’s Brynard Stander crash over to put the winless West Australians up by 10 points with just over 20 minutes remaining.
This was drama-filled, edge-of-your seat stuff and far as scripts go, it was top shelf.
The Rebels needed to win by four points to sneak into third spot – to set up a preliminary final against the Queensland Reds next week in Brisbane – and that is exactly what they did, to perfection.
Matt Toomua, with a conversion after the siren from in front, twisted the knife into the Waratahs’ broken hearts as the boys in blue were forced to settle with fourth spot – one place outside the finals.
“We weren’t able to be masters of our own destiny and when you put yourself in that situation … it’s frustrating,” Waratahs coach Rob Penney told reporters after full-time. “There’s been lots of little twists and turns along the way. We weren’t up to getting into that top three.
“All in all there’s been a lot of roller-coasters, or we’ve been on the same roller-coaster that happens to be going up and down and over a lot of bumps. Couldn’t be prouder.”
Penney did extremely well to mask the disappointment of a bad dream the Waratahs could see coming a mile off in a thrilling final 10 minutes with the Rebels camped down the Rebels’ end.
There was the forward pass that got picked up in the lead-up to a Marika Koroibete try. Then a no-try to Cabous Eloff with the ball seemingly on the line, or potentially millimetres from it.
As the Waratahs punched the air, with the Force clinging onto a three-point lead, Rebels coach Dave Wessels did well to not punch the glass in the coaches’ box at McDonald Jones Stadium.
Having twice fallen short of playing finals in consecutive seasons, Wessels was a tortured soul watching on as his mendug deep and gave referee Angus Gardner and the TMO plenty of headaches.
When officials ruled there was no evidence to prove Efi Ma’afu had scored with just over a minute left – the Rebels were absolutely certain he had – you could cut the tension with a knife.
But wait. That man again, Eloff, had the smarts to pick the ball up, which went backwards near the posts, and dot it down in a flash.
Try. Conversion. Cue wild celebrations as the Rebels celebrated a four-point victory and a maiden finals appearance, albeit in a truncated competition.
“The Rebels had too much experience in the end and just finished over the top with a couple of critical game management decisions they took and did well,” Penney said.
Although Penney has voiced his frustration at the fact a couple of bonus points went begging throughout the season due to some questionable officiating, the Waratahs only have themselves to blame as the proud franchise comes to grips with the fact they have now failed to qualify for finals in four of the past five years. The post-mortems have only just begun.
A one-from-six record in Super Rugby earlier this year was compounded by four victories from eight starts in Super Rugby AU. NSW did win three of their last four games but it was too little, too late.
“It’s a season where we made progress and I guess the snapshot is 17 guys made their debuts. It’s unheard of really at this level,” Penney said. “Hopefully there’s still a lot of progress left in the group and I think there is.
“We missed a couple of crucial shots at goal and that was probably early on. They were critical. I think we had a couple of performances where we were soundly beaten. The Brumbies down there and the Rebels up here. We weren’t the team we could be and that consistency factor probably let us down a little bit in a tight race.”
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Tom Decent is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald