The NSW Waratahs have retained control of their Super Rugby finals fate with a pulsating 45-25 win over the table-topping Chiefs in Sydney.
An attacking masterclass from superstar centre Israel Folau and career-first tryscoring double from skipper Michael Hooper reignited the Waratahs’ title hopes in spectacular fashion.
Folau lit up Allianz Stadium in his most-dazzling display yet since coach Daryl Gibson moved Australia’s reigning player of the year from fullback to the midfield six games ago.
The dual international raced 90 metres for an early intercept try against the run of play, clinched victory with his second five-pointer in the 64th minute and tormented the Chiefs with his every touch in between.
The Waratahs piled on six tries in total, with fullback Andrew Kellaway and replacement flanker Jack Dempsey, in his return from injury, also crossing in the 20-point triumph.
The win was the first by an Australian team in 10 attempts against New Zealand opposition in 2016 – and one to savour for the Waratahs heading into a five-week break for the June Test series against England.
Clinging to a one-point lead over the Brumbies entering Friday night’s match, Gibson had openly dubbed the showdown with the competition frontrunners a must-win affair.
Adding to the pressure on the 2014 champions was the Hurricanes’ victory over the defending champion Highlanders just before kickoff that leaves it almost impossible for an Australian side to steal a finals wildcard spot.
The Brumbies are raging favourites to take care of the lowly Sunwolves in Canberra on Saturday night to draw level with the Waratahs on the ladder, setting up a thrilling three-game battle for Australia’s guaranteed finals berth.
The Waratahs resume on July 2 in Tokyo against the Sunwolves before hosting the Hurricanes and then finishing in Auckland against the Blues.
The Brumbies have a far cruisier run home against the Queensland Reds, Blues and Western Force, all three teams languishing in the bottom half of the table.