The NSW Waratahs are refusing to panic as they venture to Wellington desperate to topple the unbeaten Hurricanes to keep their Super Rugby title defence alive.
In a season-defining three-game block, the Waratahs follow up their showdown with the competition leaders with a must-win home game against the Melbourne Rebels and then a blockbuster derby against the Brumbies in Canberra on May 1.
Languishing in 10th place on the ladder after being battered 32-18 by the Stormers on Saturday night, the Tahs can ill-afford any more slip-ups – and certainly not one against the Brumbies, who have opened up a seven-point lead atop the Australian conference.
First thing’s first, though, and the titleholders must regroup quickly from their humbling at the hands of the Stormers to find a way past the Hurricanes and avoid falling further off the pace.
Having watched his side produce some of their best rugby of the year against the Hurricanes last week but still come up short, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee issued a warning to the Waratahs after plotting Saturday’s bonus-point boilover at Allianz Stadium.
The Waratahs had no answer to the Stormers’ suffocating, all-in defence and paid dearly.
“The Hurricanes are obviously riding the crest of a wave and it’s going to be a tough challenge out there (for the Waratahs),” Coetzee said.
“You’ve got to play for 80 minutes against the Canes – 80 minutes plus, in fact, and you’ve got to make sure that you look after the ball.
“If you turn over as much ball as tonight, they will punish you.”
NSW coach Michael Cheika lamented his side’s lack of edge, especially in the second half when the Stormers piled on three tries to power home after trailing at the break.
But he refuses to believe the rugged South Africans have produced the blueprint to stopping the Waratahs and their stubborn ball-in-hand style.
“It seems like every time we lose, I get asked that question: is that the way to beat us?” Cheika said.
“It might be, I don’t know. The issue for us is what we do. Not about the opposition does.”
The Brumbies remain second on the log despite their 16-14 loss to the Blues in Auckland, with their bonus point increasing their advantage over the Waratahs in the race for a guaranteed finals berth from the Australian conference.
David Pocock’s immense return from injury also spells trouble for the Tahs, with the powerhouse flanker almost single-handedly keeping the Brumbies in the contest at Eden Park.
Even with one bye to come – when no competition points will be on offer – a Brumbies victory over the Waratahs in three weeks will likely clinch conference honours, not to mention give the ACT outfit claims on any tight Wallabies spots up for grabs in this all-important World Cup year.
The Waratahs’ troubles are nothing like Queensland’s, though, with the Reds sinking to the bottom of the table after a 43-22 loss to the Bulls in Pretoria on Sunday.
Life isn’t much better at the Western Force, who are also fighting to avoid the wooden spoon.
The Force’s 24-15 loss to the Cheetahs in Perth on Saturday night was their seventh on the trot and left Michael Foley’s men just two points above the Reds in third-last spot.