BERRY’S Will Miller and his NSW Waratahs have officially booked a spot in the Super Rugby finals and put themselves within one win of a guaranteed home semi-final after dispatching the Sunwolves 77-25 on Saturday evening.
Despite trailing by six points in the first half, the Waratahs solidified their position at the top of the Australian conference by thumping the Japanese franchise in an incredible 12-tries-to-three showing.
It was the most points the Waratahs have scored in their Super Rugby history, eclipsing the 73 they piled on against the Lions in 2010, and the 52-point win is even more stunning considering they were trailing in the first half. Israel Folau, Taqele Naiyarvoro and Alex Newsome managed doubles, while there were nine individual try-scorers.
With the Melbourne Rebels and ACT Brumbies both suffering defeats before them, the Waratahs maintained their composure to belt their opponents into submission.
"We’ll be really happy with some quality tries that we scored there," said coach Daryl Gibson.
"It gives us a lot of confidence and momentum now we’ve earned ourselves another week."
If the Waratahs can beat the Brumbies next week they will finish second overall, meaning that if they qualify, they will host a home semi-final at Allianz Stadium.
The teams had only played each other twice before and on both occasions the Waratahs reached a half-century of points.
By the 61st minute, NSW had reached that milestone once again in front of their biggest crowd of the year (18,059).
The Sunwolves were forced to play with 14 men for 41 minutes after Semisi Masirewa was shown a red card for a tip tackle on Bernard Foley, which put the Waratahs five-eighth on his head.
There was an argument that perhaps a yellow card would have sufficed but World Rugby’s mandate to protect the head ultimately made the final call completely understandable.
As soon as the Sunwolves were down a man, they crumbled. The Waratahs put on 15 points in the first eight minutes of the second half to regain complete control of the contest.
"A key moment in that game was the red card and I was really pleased with our team and the way we responded," Gibson said.
"The effect it has on the game, it takes away the contest. The referee has no option, he is following to the letter of the law and that’s what he’s required to do."
Foley said he felt the red card was justified.
"It was unfortunate but how it ended up he probably gives the ref no option in terms of the outcome," he said.
Trailing by 35 points with 10 minutes to go, the Sunwolves then had to play the rest of the match with 13 players because of an ugly neck roll on Jake Gordon.
"That’s also another dangerous one where the player ends up on his head," Foley said.
"It’s exactly what [Brumbies coach] Dan McKellar was talking about last week with Poey’s one.
“It’s not what we want to see in the game."
Watching Naiyaravoro literally run over the top of hapless Sunwolves defenders summed up just how much of a mismatch this fixture had become.
There was even more reason to smile for Naiyarvoro on a chilly winter evening in front of his home fans given that he now has the distinction of scoring the more tries in a Super Rugby season than any other Waratahs player.
With Naiyaravoro racking up 14 five-pointers already from 13 matches, Gibson is hoping to squeeze as much out of him come finals time.
"He came into this year with a real determined motivation to leave here with a legacy and he is certainly doing that," Gibson said.
"At times he is unstoppable and that is something he had reflected on that he wants to become and he’s certainly living up to that."
While the sheer number of points scored will please Gibson, it was the manner in which they were chalked up that was most impressive.
The Waratahs were able to bulldoze their way through the middle and gain plenty of front-foot ball, enabling a slick back line to run a number of set plays to bamboozle their fatigued opponents.
Nick Phipps had his best game of the season, while Foley and Kurtley Beale continued their scintillating form coming into the business end of the year.
"We know the potential of this team," Foley said.
"The real pleasing thing is seeing last week how we were able to get a result in a game that wasn’t going our way and the scrappiness.
“[That is] compared to this week when we can really show our potential and show how dangerous we can be in this competition."
Foley’s early decision to kick for touch instead of taking three points on offer warmed the hearts of NSW fans and showed the Waratahs’ early intent. Even though Foley’s kick missed its target, it was great to see.
Sunwolves No.10 Hayden Parker booted a remarkable 36th consecutive successful goal to put the visitors up 3-nil but when Sekope Kepu dived over shortly after, Foley had a chance to make his own history.
His conversion, from the right sideline, saw him notch up his 900th point in Super Rugby. Foley is now only behind Matt Burke (959) on the all-time Super Rugby point-scoring list for the Waratahs.
The NSW No.10 made an embarrassing blunder minutes later though, by assuming a kick was going into touch.
While it may have looked that way, Foley was made to look rather silly when Sunwolves winger Akihito Yamada flirted with the white paint to score his side’s opening try of the evening.
Then when Ned Hanigan missed a regulation one-on-one tackle, the Waratahs were suddenly trailing on the scoreboard and with a fight on their hands.
As the first half went on, however, the NSW back line clicked into gear.
A crisp pass to Folau from Beale put the Waratahs fullback into space and with a 60-metre run to the line. Beale finished off another terrific team effort, while Folau notched up a double in the 39th minute to give his side the ascendancy and a 24-18 lead at half-time.
From there NSW never looked back and piled on the points with eight tries to one in the last 40 minutes.