Israel Folau scored three of the NSW Waratahs’ nine tries as the defending champions returned to the top of the Australian Conference and guaranteed a spot in the Super Rugby playoffs with a 58-33 bonus-point win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
The Waratahs will not finish lower than sixth on the Super Rugby ladder, even if they lose to Queensland in the final round of the regular season next weekend.
Michael Cheika’s side came into the match in South Africa needing a bonus-point win over the 13th-placed Cheetahs to bump the Brumbies from top spot on the Australian Conference as they chase a week off and prized home semi-final.
The Waratahs and Brumbies are now locked on 47 points, but NSW lead by virtue of having more wins this season.
It sets up a thrilling last round. The Brumbies get the chance to heap pressure on the Waratahs when they host the Crusaders in Canberra on Saturday afternoon, with NSW to face the Reds later that evening in Sydney.
Of concern for Cheika would be the Waratahs’ scrum, which crumbled a couple of times under pressure from the Cheetahs and that NSW let in five tries and trailed the hapless South Africans twice in the match.
Captain Dave Dennis admitted the Waratahs’ defence needs some work, but overall he was a happy skipper.
“To score 50-odd points away from home is probably a reflection of what we are capable of,” Dennis said.
“It was really positive. Although the Cheetahs have been struggling a bit this year, they are a good team, they showed that by scoring five really good tries.
“I was really proud of the way we kept fighting. We kept playing rugby and got the result in the end.
“We’ve got to shore up the `D’ (defence) a little bit but I’m really proud of the effort.”
Defence was optional in Bloemfontein with five tries inside the opening 20 minutes as both sides went on the attack from the opening whistle.
Folau bagged his first try on four minutes and had a double just before halftime when he scored the Waratahs’ fourth.
Giant NSW winger Taqele Naiyaravoro scored after the halftime siren to give the Waratahs a 29-21 lead at the break with eight tries scored in the opening 40 minutes.
Folau celebrated his hat-trick in the 60th minute which followed tries from Waratahs centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and electrifying Cheetahs winger Cornal Hendricks, who scored his second on 55 minutes after a first-half intercept try.
There was a run a of tries in the final 10 minutes with Bernard Foley crashing over before NSW winger Matthew Carraro and Cheetahs centre Francois Venter celebrated doubles with late five-pointers.