BERRY’S Will Miller and his NSW Waratahs have some 11th-hour cramming to do a week out from the start of the Super Rugby season, after being battered by the Brumbies for much of their final pre-season trial in Goulburn on Thursday.
Two late tries to NSW No.6 Lachlan Swinton helped the Waratahs close a 20-point gap to go down 34-28 in front of an appreciative country crowd at Goulburn Workers Arena.
But for most of the match it was one-way traffic as the Brumbies showed themselves to be the more cohesive, well-drilled and impressively dominant side, deploying their maul and set-piece prowess to devastating effect.
"That's been a Brumbies hallmark for a number of years and tonight they showed just how powerful they can be from that phase of the game," NSW coach Daryl Gibson said.
Wallaby Jack Dempsey and Test veteran Adam Ashley-Cooper were bright spots for NSW in a team performance that otherwise wilted in the face of a bruising Brumbies gain-line assault.
Dempsey brought his trademark abrasiveness and scored in the 46th minute to break a long drought for the visitors when they trailed 27-7. Ashley-Cooper, home after four years away in a bid to make his fourth World Cup, straightened the NSW attack and paired up solidly with inside-centre Karmichael Hunt.
"He brings that calmness to our back line, particularly in defence," Gibson said. "That's the reason we got him back and I think he really showed that tonight, and steadied the ship.
"Karmichael is bringing what we expected him to, that steely determination, good ball carries, tough in defence. I'm really happy with his progress and where he's at."
Hunt, 32, and Ashley-Cooper, 34, could find themselves a touring gig as Super Rugby's oldest midfield partnership in coming months after midfield hopeful Lalakai Foketi, who started in the No.13 jersey, limped from the field.
The luckless centre will require scans to determine the severity of a hamstring injury. Foketi impressed with a hat-trick in last week's trial against the Highlanders after an eight-month hiatus with a stress fracture in his shin.
NSW tight-head Shambeckler Vui also left the field injured, giving forwards coach Simon Cron an unwanted headache as his prop stocks dip ever lower. Test prop Tom Robertson was running the waters at the Goulburn Workers Arena, a reminder of the front row quality Cron does not have at his disposal heading into round one.
"With Sekope [Kepu] coming back, he'll be limited in his minutes and then we're going to have to find someone to take up the rest of those minutes. Plenty of challenges ahead of next week."
The Brumbies have injury problems of their own, with James Slipper requiring treatment for what appeared to be a chest injury, and winger Lausii Taliauli injuring his knee.
Coach Dan McKellar said the duo aren't as bad as initially feared and could still line up for the season-opener against Melbourne Rebels on February 15.
"From what I've been told Lausii is more like a corkie, so structurally it's OK, which is a relief," McKellar said.
Also on Cron's mind will be the NSW set-pieces. Hooker Andrew Tuala was solid around the park but battled with his throwing at times, while the Brumbies showed no signs of giving up their reputation as fearsome scrum and maul opponents.
Former Waratah Irae Simone was one of a host of big Brumbies backs who opened up the NSW defence with worrying ease. Toni Pulu, Tevita Kuridrani and Andy Muirhead were also impressive.
South African import Le Roux Roets made a difference at scrum time when he came on in the middle third, Will Miller scored in the 15th minute and Swinton made good use of the Brumbies' changing line-up in the final two 15-minute periods.
Halves Mitch Short and Mack Mason made a solid start but couldn’t straighten things up when the Brumbies worked up a head of steam.
Gibson singled out some of the younger players for praise, including Scots College second-rower Will Harris, former Australian Schoolboys captain and reserve five-eighth Will Harrison and utility back Ben Donaldson, who added energy and dynamism in the final third.
The Waratahs head into next Saturday’s season-opener at Brookvale Oval with a few central questions, not least of which is how match-fit their Wallabies will be.
Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Michael Hooper, Sekope Kepu and Tolu Latu were among the Test players not used by coach Daryl Gibson. Their class and starch will bolster the Australians’ chances against the Hurricanes, who will be missing honeymooner Beauden Barrett.