The New South Wales Waratahs ground out an uninspired 20-15 victory over the Western Force to continue their pursuit of the Queensland Reds at the top of the Australian Super rugby conference on Saturday.
An opportunistic try from Ryan Cross at the start of the second half and a hard-won score from hooker John Ulugia 10 minutes from time allowed the home side to twice overhaul Force leads earned by the prolific boot of James O’Connor.
O’Connor, who converted five penalties, and openside flanker David Pocock were outstanding for the Force, the former kicking superbly and the latter leading a superb spoiling effort from the Force pack at the breakdown.
Playing for pride and to avenge a 31-3 hammering last month, the Force kept it tight and waited for the Waratahs to make mistakes with O’Connor then doling out the punishment with penalties and fine kicking from the hand deep into the corners.
“It was very tough, they made us work for every scrap of possession we got and consequently we didn’t get very much clean ball,” said skipper Dean Mumm. “I’m very proud of the way the boys really scraped that win. It’s important to keep winning.”
The Waratahs, already weakened by injuries to a string of top players, will need to finish the season strongly if they are to have any hope of closing the nine-point gap on the Reds and avoiding the wildcard rounds of the play-offs.
The Force led 9-6 after a forgettable first half courtesy of three O’Connor penalties to two from Waratahs fullback Kurtley Beale.
It was one that Beale missed, however, that triggered the first try of the match four minutes after the break when his attempt hit the left upright and Cross pounced on the rebound to dash across the line to score against his former team.
Beale added the extra points for a 13-9 lead but 10 minutes later O’Connor had put his side back in front with two more penalties.
If there was an element of fortune about the Waratahs’ first try, the second was the result of sheer hard graft.
The Waratahs patiently put together 25 phases of possession, then kept their nerve through a series of reset scrums close to the Force line and finally got their reward when third string hooker Ulugia burrowed over from a metre out.
Once they lost the lead, the Force were unable to switch from patient spoiling to attack and the Waratahs were again camped out on the visitors’ line when the hooter sounded to end the match.
“It wasn’t a free-flowing contest by any stretch of the imagination,” said Force skipper Nathan Sharpe. “We didn’t really get close enough to score a try. Disappointed with that.”