Michael Cheika is demanding the NSW Waratahs rediscover their killer instinct as Super Rugby’s defending champions look to seize control of their finals fate in a high-stakes derby against the Brumbies on Friday night.
Coach Cheika was furious after the Waratahs almost frittered away a big early lead in Saturday night’s tense 18-16 win over the Melbourne Rebels at ANZ Stadium.
The two-point escape was “far too close” for Cheika’s liking and he admonished his pack for losing their go-forward during “some very dark patches” in an encounter that almost certainly ended the gallant Rebels’ playoff hopes.
The hard-earned victory at least left the Waratahs within striking distance of the Brumbies, four points adrift on the ladder, going into their clash in Canberra that will likely decide Australian conference honours.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to be shaking in their boots down there,” Cheika said.
Maybe not, but a first victory over the Brumbies in Canberra since 2011 would vault the Waratahs to the top of the conference with a game in hand over their archrivals.
“That’s the goal of ours, to be leading our Australian conference and we want to continue the momentum that we got over the last two weeks,” said veteran centre Adam Ashley-Cooper.
“Having that first semi at home is huge. I mean, finishing top guarantees you a spot in the finals and that’s exactly where we want to be.
“So we can control our own destiny by getting the result.”
NSW won the round-six meeting in Sydney 28-13 in a heated affair marked by Brumbies flanker David Pocock’s complaints to the referee about homophobic slurs by Waratahs import Jacques Potgieter.
“We always have a big confrontation against these guys,” said flanker Michael Hooper, whose breakdown battle with Pocock will be a feature.
Ashley-Cooper said neither team would be lacking motivation.
“Because we haven’t won there for the last couple of years. The last two times we’ve travelled down there, we’ve been absolutely dished up,” he said.
“We probably didn’t give the Rebels the respect that they deserve because, in the end, they could have got a penalty and could have stolen the game for us.
“We’ve got to learn from that. We’ve got to become a little more ruthless when things are going our way, rather than sitting on our heels and expecting things to happen.”
Melbourne’s near miss left the Rebels in 11th spot, not completely out of finals reckoning with a game in hand on most of their rivals including the Brumbies, but seven points behind the seventh-placed Waratahs.
The Chiefs jumped into top position overall with a 35-27 win over the Western Force, who remain anchored to the bottom of the table after eight straight defeats.
The Stormers leapfrogged the Bulls to go top of the South African conference with a tight 15-13 victory over their rivals in Cape Town.
The Highlanders remain in sixth place, one point ahead of the Waratahs, despite their 31-18 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra.