The Waratahs have secured a first-up pre-season victory by coming from behind to beat a rusty Highlanders outfit 40-21 in Sydney on Friday.
Playing in front of a small home crowd at Leichhardt Oval, the Waratahs found themselves on the back foot inside the opening 10 minutes as the visitors asserted their authority with two contrasting tries.
Young centre Sio Tomkinson did his best to stake a claim in the Highlanders’ starting midfield by snaffling an intercept to run in the match’s first try from 40 metres out in the second minute.
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A Mitch Hunt conversion was soon followed by another try, this time to injury call-up Nathan Vella, who has come into the Highlanders set-up as Ricky Jackson’s replacement for the season.
The former Hurricanes and Sunwolves hooker finished off a nice sequence of phase play build-up with a pick and go try, of which Hunt converted.
Things started to slip away from the Highlanders, though, with a lack of discipline costing Aaron Mauger’s side, which was forced to defend for long periods when the Waratahs got their hands on the ball.
A raft of offside infringements was soon yielded a yellow card to lock Jesse Parete, which no doubt aided Wallabies prop Harry Johnson-Holmes’ try from a barrage of pick and go’s three minutes later.
It's the first time the 24-year-old has played since last April.https://t.co/9Rt3q45pL1
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 18, 2020
A strong defensive effort by the Highlanders kept the second quarter scoreless despite the attacking intent shown by Rob Penney’s men.
However, another yellow card – this time shown to Tomkinson in the 38th minute for entering the ruck from the side – proved to be costly, as the Waratahs opened the third quarter with a try to promising flanker Carlo Tizanno.
Experienced wing Alex Newsome followed that up by finishing off a Will Harrison cross kick just three minutes later, which took the hosts into a 19-14 lead.
A lineout drive deep inside opposition territory saw the Highlanders salvage score-equalling try to replacement prop Daniel Lienert-Brown, who now stands as one of the squad’s most experienced players.
Bryn Gatland’s conversion took the Dunedin club into a two-point lead, but an array of errors and sloppy defence made for a disjointed last half hour from the Highlanders’ second half substitutes.
Subsequently, Tizanno bagged himself a brace shortly after Lienert-Brown’s try, while Michael McDonald effectively put the game to bed with his 64th minute score to put the Waratahs into a 33-21 lead.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 17, 2020
James Ramm put the icing on the cake for the New South Welshmen by splintering a lacklustre Highlanders defence from a lineout to dot down under the posts in injury time.
While combinations and tactics are still being formulated throughout this truncated Super Rugby pre-season, it’s clear that there is plenty for Mauger’s youthful, inexperienced squad to work on ahead of their season-opener against the Sharks at Forsyth Barr Stadium on February 7.
Between now and then stands the club’s second and final pre-season clash against the Crusaders in Wanaka next Friday.
By contrast, the wide-ranging attack and comparatively polished outing shown by the Waratahs should please new head coach Penney as he awaits the return of his Australian World Cup stars.
New fullback Mark Nawaqanitawase didn’t get on the scoresheet, but he joined Tizanno and teenage prop Angus Bell as some of the most impressive performers in the Waratahs’ compelling victory.
Penney will have one more opportunity in pre-season to fine tune his side when they travel to Dalby to face the Reds next Friday before their season kick-off against the Crusaders in Nelson on February 1.
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