Tahs turn arm wrestle their way

Israel Folau Photo: Cameron SpencerAs it happened / match stats

If former NSW coach Michael Foley came hunting for revenge in Sydney this weekend, he was sent home empty-handed.

But only just. The Waratahs fought off a gritty second-half fightback from Foley’s Force outfit to notch their third win of the season in front of 15,300 fans on Sunday.

Second-half tries to both sides and a furious final 15 minutes enlivened an otherwise stop-start game in which the crowd watched penalty kick after penalty kick while the Waratahs opened up a six-point lead at the break.

A try to Adam Ashley-Cooper early in the second half extended the lead to 14 points before the Force hit back with their own five-pointer, to fullback Alfie Mafi, and a 60th-minute penalty to get within four points of their opponents.

The final 20 minutes were an evenly matched arm wrestle. The Waratahs did most of the running but couldn’t complete, while the Force chipped away at the Tahs’ defence and never made it easy.

For the Waratahs, this was another building block in coach Michael Cheika’s grand design and keeps them in the hunt with the majority of the season still to run.

The Force, in a similar rebuilding phase to their east-coast cousins, continue to chase an elusive second win after beating the Reds last month but struggling to topple good sides since then.

Halfback Brendan McKibbin gave NSW the first-half edge, kicking five in a row as the Force struggled with discipline. The Force notched three of their own, including the first two three-pointers of the match, with a smart pressure game that forced the Waratahs to defend in tight.

There were plenty of opportunities to attack in the first half for NSW but execution was the familiar sticking point, tripping them up every time they revved their engines in attack.

They were able to take points from each opportunity, equalising at 6-6 in the 19th minute and leading 9-6 after an impressive period of phase play in the 22nd minute.

The Force could do little for themselves with 14 men on the field, while prop Salesi Ma’afu sat in the sin bin for a high tackle on replacement hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau.

Fullback Israel Folau combined superbly with his five-eighth, Bernard Foley, both players breaking the line and getting the Waratahs within spitting distance of the try line before, on at least two occasions, the Force gave away penalties and points. The Waratahs made it 12-9 with 11 minutes to go in the half.

Returning Force captain Matt Hodgson boosted his side in attack, at one point getting two touches of the ball in the Waratahs’ half but pushing it too far at the breakdown a minute later to give the Waratahs yet another three points.

Both teams tried to up the pace in the second half and the Waratahs won the early battle, taking a penalty goal and the first try of the match within the first seven minutes. It was again the work of Folau in attack that put Foley in a position to pass to centre Adam Ashley-Cooper in the left corner. This time, unlike their first-half attempts, the Waratahs executed, Ashley-Cooper taking NSW to a 23-9 lead over the visitors.

The Force were next, fullback Alfie Mafi completing in the right corner to put them back in the game. Sias Ebersohn converted to make it 23-16 with 25 minutes to go and kicked them to within four points of the Waratahs three minutes later.

NSW WARATAHS 23 (Adam Ashley-Cooper try Brendan McKibbin 6 pens) bt WESTERN FORCE 19 (Alfie Mafi try Sias Ebersohn con 4 pens) at Allianz Stadium. Referee: Steve R. Walsh. Crowd: 15,348.

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