NSW captain Dave Dennis admits it’s impossible to ignore the comparisons to last year after the Waratahs wrestled back control of their Super Rugby title defence with a spirited bonus-point win over the Hurricanes.
The thrilling 29-24 triumph over the ladder leaders in Wellington catapulted the Waratahs into seventh spot with a game in hand over most of their finals rivals, including staggering Australian conference leaders the Brumbies.
Equally important for the champions was the powerful and composed manner of the victory, which mirrored their round-12 comeback win over the Hurricanes in Sydney last season.
That 39-30 result, from 24-7 down at Allianz Stadium, stirred the Waratahs to life.
Michael Cheika’s men converted the momentum into a club-record nine straight wins and a maiden Super Rugby crown after 19 years of trying.
A jubilant Dennis is hoping the Waratahs can kick on in similar fashion in 2015.
“It’s a very big win for us,” the flanker told AAP.
“You don’t want to look back too much but there were obviously some of the same elements from our win over the Hurricanes last year.
“It was a day game, they led and played expansively but we really stuck to our game after a pretty tough and fiery start.
“There’s things we can improve on; we let in 24 points, our set piece is still a bit inconsistent, the lineout can get better.
“But this shows we still a lot of hunger and desire to improve.”
With their finals hopes on the line after a shock home loss to the Stormers, the Waratahs ran in four tries on Saturday, including a double to winger Peter Betham and career first in Super Rugby for giant lock Will Skelton, to spectacularly end the Hurricanes’ unbeaten seven-game start to the competition.
Skelton had a storming game, a rare 80-minute outing after Cheika cleared his bench, while Dennis and Wycliff Palu were inspirational as the Waratahs rediscovered the physical edge the coach had been looking for.
“We said to ourselves if we were going to be in this competition, we would do it our way,” said Waratahs assistant coach Daryl Gibson.
“That’s attack and really playing with physicality that’s part of our trademark and tonight was getting back to that. We were satisfied with delivering that.”
The victory – and Melbourne’s watershed win over the Brumbies in Canberra – has set up a huge Anzac Day derby between the Waratahs and Rebels at ANZ Stadium.
The Rebels have suddenly emerged as finals dark horses and another upset win next could lift them above the Waratahs in what has developed into a fascinating battle for conference honours – and guaranteed finals entry.