Wallabies star Bernard Foley is itching to finally inject himself for the spluttering NSW Waratahs as Australia’s three Super Rugby conference contenders enter a potentially season-shaping four-week block.
The Brumbies’ 31-11 loss to the Stormers in Cape Town on Sunday morning (AEDT) allowed the Melbourne Rebels to join the previously unbeaten ACT outfit atop the Australian ladder with an historic 35-9 bonus-point triumph over the Sunwolves in Tokyo.
The Waratahs are languishing seven points adrift – and 12th overall – after their 30-26 defeat to the Highlanders, but have a game in hand on the Brumbies and Rebels, who face looming challenges of their own.
The Brumbies battle the Cheetahs next and coach Stephen Larkham suspects the Stormers may have provided other rivals with the template and strategy for beating his side after successfully playing a territory-based tactical kicking game underpinned by strong set-piece work and robust breakdown work.
“The Cheetahs are a dangerous outfit, very difficult to beat at home,” Larkham said.
“They love to throw the ball around, but no doubt they will take a bit out of tonight’s game.”
Larkham may need more reinforcements after losing back-rower Jarrad Butler to a knee problem before the game, while winger Henry Speight suffered a facial injury and reserve hooker Josh Mann-Rea faces a judicial hearing on Monday after being sent off in the 64th minute for punching.
While the Rebels are the big movers, their wins this campaign have come against three of the bottom four teams and they now face stern tests in their next three fixtures against the defending champion Highlanders, Waratahs and last year’s runners-up the Hurricanes.
“It’s fantastic for the players and the team,” said Rebels coach Tony McGahan after becoming the first Australian side to play – and win – in Japan.
“We’ve had a really challenging four weeks and three of those were on the road and for the players to continue to control that game all the way through for 80 minutes was a terrific reflection on them.
“The Highlanders and Waratahs waiting for us, with the highlanders playing particularly well at this time.”
Foley has been sidelined since suffering a shoulder injury in a pre-season trial, but his return for next Sunday’s derby with the Queensland Reds in Brisbane is a major boost for the Waratahs.
Showdowns with the Reds, then the Rebels and Brumbies either side of a round-seven bye – could make or break the Tahs’ season and halfback Nick Phipps is happy to have his housemate and playmaker back on deck for the crunch matches.
“Bernie’s been working very hard. He’s looking trim, he’s looking fit. He’s ready to go,” Phipps said.
“To be honest, he’s a bit of a pain to have around the house at the moment. He’s just so eager to go.
“So we’re looking forward to having him come back into the fold.
“Hopefully he’ll slot straight back in to where we need him.”
The struggling Reds missed a golden opportunity to record their first win of the season, drawing 25-25 at home with the Blues, who scored the last 10 points of the game inside the final quarter and kicked a match-tying penalty after the siren.
The Force were thrashed 41-6 by the Hurricanes in Palmerston North, conceding six tries.