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Waratahs face uphill battle in Johannesburg

Well, I’m glad I watched both halves of the Waratahs versus Highlanders Super Rugby quarter-final last Saturday in Sydney.

I was tempted to switch it off at halftime. With the Highlanders dominating I was fully expecting the score to kick on. I would have bet my house on the Highlanders winning by a big margin. Their forward pack was dominating and Lima Sopoaga was running the whole show. Kurtley Beale was on the field but was not sighted in the first half and Israel Folau was making error after error. The Highlanders led at half time 23-6 with the Waratahs ending up winning 30-23.

The Highlanders play a very similar game to the Waratahs. It is up-tempo, using the width of the field with Lima Sopoaga and Kurtley Beale having similar styles of play, drawing defenders with their ability to put runners away with crisp passing on inside and outside lines. The Highlanders forwards were getting on top in the first half as well, especially with their counter-rucking. Set pieces were pretty even with both sides dropping a few throws in the lineout.

So the half-time whistle goes and a new Waratahs team trots out. Kurtley Beale has the ball on a string again and is making big line breaks, Israel Folau is making no errors and finishing like a runaway train, and Bernard Foley is in on the show as well combining well with Beale and Folau to score two tries. The Waratahs forward pack look more enthusiastic supporting the ball carrier in the tackle and stopping the Highlanders’ effective first half counter-rucking.

I have no idea why the Highlanders did not come out and play in the second half but they have missed the plane to Johannesburg for the semi-final against the Lions and the Tahs have happily climbed on board. The Lions are set to host the Waratahs at Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg this Saturday 28th July.

My prediction for the weekend will be a Lions victory, though I am hoping for some more Tahs magic like we saw in the second half against the Highlanders. Unfortunately, even before the Tahs get on the field they have to overcome the huge time and distance in travel. The altitude is also a massive factor and of course when they actually run on the field they have to face a very good Lions team, who are well rested and playing at home.

I have done the Johannesburg run many a time with Queensland and the Wallabies. It’s a nightmare trip, especially when the planes could not go directly from Sydney to Johannesburg and you had to refuel in Perth. The Waratahs would have hopped on a 14-hour direct flight on Sunday and you can imagine the scenes after their last Super Rugby match; everyone is wearing ice packs, it is a like a hospital ward, the physios find some clear floor space and they work the full trip treating players.

The Tahs would arrive in Johannesburg exhausted, bashed up and ready to sleep for 24 hours, but no, they have a Super Rugby semi-final in five and half days. The Lions meanwhile are at home doing their resting and team rehab and are already one to two days in front with their preparation. The Tahs would have still not seen the Lions match on video by the time they arrived in South Africa.

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The joys of playing at altitude, in 1992 after the Wallabies played Western Transvaal in the lovely resort town of Potchefstroom; my description of playing at altitude was widely reported in the Australian press. I played the full 80 minutes and since we were the first Wallaby team to play at altitude since 1969 our press contingent was super keen for some quotes. I stated, “it was like trying to play rugby with a plastic bag over your head, you simply can’t breathe especially in the last 20 minutes.” It was a weird experience like running around with a bad case of bronchitis. The lovely resort town of Potchefstroom is 1350m above sea level, Johannesburg is a step up at 1700 m above sea level, so you can effectively add another plastic bag.

You can win away at altitude; I did it in 1995 when Queensland beat Transvaal in the Super 10 final at Ellis Park. We did what a lot of visiting teams used to do, like stay at sea level and fly up to the High Veldt within 24 hours of the match. In our case our base was Durban. This was seen to negate the effects of altitude and certainly worked for us that year. Talking to South African teams who are based at sea level, they ignore the altitude factor, don’t talk about it and just fly up the morning of the match. I don’t know what the Waratahs plans are this week but the altitude is a huge factor and they will have a plan to negate it.

Anyone who has been to Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria and seen Naas Botha kick a football will know you are in a different world. Against the backdrop of an impossibly pale blue washed out sky, the football seemingly travels into the stratosphere and travels the full length of the pitch. As Naas hoists it above the giant Blou Bulle’s forward pack it travels forever into the thin air of the High Veldt, becoming a speck before falling, giving time for his monstrous forward pack to hit you like a crashing blue tidal wave.

So the Waratahs have battled the travel, the altitude and now they have to face up to the Lions on Saturday. No easy task, the Lions are strong across the field, evidenced by their dismantling of the Jaguares 40 -23 last weekend in their quarter-final clash. What was surprising to me was the way the Lions scrum completely dominated the Puma front row led scrum of the Jaguares, smashing them on occasion. The Lions also shut down the Jaguares running game very easily, committing virtually no one to the ruck and fanning in defence, easily picking up the runners and denying the width of the field. A tactic they will also use against the Waratahs, who have zero attack around the ruck and a reliance on first hit-up runners and using the width of the field. The Waratahs will struggle against the Lions very strong lineout. They like to throw up jumpers in defence and will pinch some throws for sure.

Best of luck to the Waratahs, I don’t think they will get through this weekend as I feel it is a game too far for them. I hope the Tahs surprise me again but travel, altitude and a very strong team playing at home are conspiring against a Tahs win. Smart money on the Lions is my bet for the weekend and the Crusaders to beat the Hurricanes in the other semi-final in Christchurch.

In other news:

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