The Waratahs have blown a golden chance to cement their standing at the top of the Australian conference with a 31-29 loss to the Sunwolves in Newcastle.
Only six days ago, it was NSW who were the giant killers, with a 20-12 win over the Crusaders, but on Friday they were brought soundly back to earth by a Sunwolves side that pounced on Waratahs errors and took their opportunities in attack.
The Sunwolves threat was one of which the Waratahs were acutely aware after a 31-30 win in Tokyo in round two but where they held out a late charge in Japan, they were the side that ran out of time to claw back a lead at McDonald Jones Stadium, losing to the Sunwolves for the first time.
Their task was always going to be a difficult one in the absence of Test trio Bernard Foley, Jack Dempsey and Adam Ashley-Cooper but the Waratahs still had plenty of chances to assert their dominance.
Rookie flyhalf Mack Mason had a night he’d probably rather forget, under pressure from the get go, throwing an intercept that led directly to a try and having a patchy night with his in-play kicking as well.
He was not alone in having a less than superb evening, though, with handling errors costing them at crucial times, though the Sunwolves were also guilty of throwing away some opportunities.
Sunwolves winger Semisi Masirewa piled on the points for the Japanese outfit with a hat-trick, including scoring off Mason’s pass, with Hayden Parker’s reliable kicking ultimately proving the difference on the scoreboard.
It took the Waratahs less than two minutes for the first score, starting from a lineout, with Michael Hooper breaking the line and popping a pass to Nick Phipps who sped out of the clutches of the Sunwolves defence.
The Waratahs were playing at a pace above the Sunwolves and it was quick delivery just short of the line that led to the second Waratahs try, with Mack Mason throwing a last-second offload to Israel Folau, before it landed in Cam Clark’s hands.
A Hayden Parker dummy set the Sunwolves up for their first attacking chance and lock Grant Hattingh powered through a Kurtley Beale tackle attempt to score the visitors’ first in the
Mason had a chance to score an opportunistic try after charging down a Parker kick but in foot race for the line, he toed it dead.
The Sunwolves were slowly building momentum through possession and it paid dividends just on the half hour mark.
Flanker Dan Pryor outsmarted the Waratahs defence beating NSW down the edge and throwing an inside ball to winger Masirewa for their second of the night and the lead.
A Mason penalty narrowed the gap to two points and that’s where the Waratahs stayed at the break, as they looked to hit the reset button.
Waratahs skipper Michael Hooper found the line in the 43rd minute after some edge to edge play from the NSW side.
Wingers Cam Clark and Alex Newsome both had half-chances on their edges, helped by a Rob Simmons cut-out pass, but it was Hooper who used his power to finish off a run of quick recycles to score a short-range try.
Their lead was cut back just six minutes later when Masirewa collected a Parker offload and burned Newsome on the edge to score his second.
Masirewa was in for his third off an easy intercept, from a awry Mason pass, just four minutes later and the Japanese side suddenly looked in control.
Mason was taken off in the 60th minute and Beale stepped into flyhalf with Lalakai Foketi coming into the centres.
Beale began to try and create some magic, just missing the chance to pounce on a ball in the in-goal but the next time he spotted a chance, he didn’t waste it, running through the Sunwolves line and scoring next to the post, narrowing the margin back to two points.
While NSW dominated the territory in that final 15 minutes, the Sunwolves held their nerve and kept the Waratahs out to hang on for an historic win.
The Waratahs travel to Auckland next week to take on the Blues, while the Sunwolves face the Rebels in Melbourne.
The final score is Waratahs 29 (15) Sunwolves 31 (17)
Tries – Phipps, Clark, Hooper, Beale
Pen – Mason
Con – Mason (2), Beale
Tries – Hattingh, Masirewa (3)
Pen – Parker
Con – Parker (4)
Australian Super Rugby Standings
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WARATAHS (15-1): Israel Folau, Cam Clark, Karmichael Hunt, Kurtley Beale, Alex Newsome, Mack Mason, Nick Phipps, Michael Wells, Michael Hooper (c), Lachlan Swinton, Rob Simmons, Ned Hanigan, Sekope Kepu, Damien Fitzpatrick, Harry Johnson-Holmes
Reserves: Andrew Tuala, Rory O’Connor, Chris Talakai, Ryan McCauley, Tom Staniforth, Jake Gordon, Lalakai Foketi, John Folau
SUNWOLVES (15-1): Ryohei Yamanaka, Gerhard van den Heever, Jason Emery, Harumichi Tatakawa, Semisi Masirewa, Hayden Parker, Kaito Shigeno, Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, Dan Pryor (c), Hendrik Tui, Uwe Helu, Grant Hattingh, Jiwon Koo, Jaba Bregvadze, Pauliasi Manu
Reserves: Nathan Vella, Masataka Mikami, Takuma Asahara, Mark Abbott, Kara Pryor, Fumiaki Tanaka, Takuya Yamasawa, Josh Timu
Match Officials and details
Date : Friday 29 March
Venue : McDonald Jones Stadium, Newcastle
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant Ref 1:Jaco Peyper
Assistant Ref 2:Egon Seconds
TMO : George Ayoub