By Derek Royal
Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau became the third most capped Waratah as the defending Super 15 champions battled their way to a tight 38-28 victory over the Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park on Friday.
The Waratahs exorcised the demons of last week’s debacle against the Western Force, who gave the Sydneyiders a 25-13 touch-up at Allianz Stadium.
Polota-Nau, a 50-Test Wallaby veteran, overtook the record held by former Waratahs’ prop Al Baxter, who played 121 matches for the side between 2000 and 2011.
Polota-Nau’s career has been ravaged by injury, seriously minimising the number of caps he has earned in both Super and international rugby. Most recently, he suffered a damaged knee in the Waratahs’ Super Rugby final victory over the Crusaders last August, before copping a serious ankle injury a month later in an ill-fated Test comeback against Argentina.
Now back to full fitness after a rigorous off-season, the aggressive front rower tore into a mountain of work against a Rebels side that can consider itself desperately unlucky not to pick up more than a bonus point as both sides scored four tries apiece.
With the scores locked at 28-all in the 73rd minute, Waratahs inside centre Kurtley Beale broke Melbourne hearts when he scored what proved to be the decisive try, while fly-half Bernard Foley steered the Waratahs with an impeccable kicking display and a personal haul of 15 points from the boot.
In the end, the 10-point scoreline flattered NSW but in a boost for the side's prospects of defending their Super title, making the most of opportunities in tight situations became a hallmark in last year’s run to championship glory.
Meanwhile, Polota-Nau wasn’t the only Waratah to achieve a milestone against the Rebels. Fly-half Foley celebrated his 50th Super Rugby cap, while teammates Adam Ashley-Cooper and Stephen Hoiles notched their 50th Waratah Super Rugby caps respectively. Benn Robinson equalled Phil Waugh’s record as as the most capped NSW player in history (136) and Wycliff Palu equalled Chris Whitaker as fifth most capped Waratah in Super Rugby (107).
Final Score: Rebels 28 Waratahs 38
Tries - S.Higginbotham, L.Timani, L.Burgess, S.Naivalu
Con - M.Harris 4
Tries - S.Hoiles, Ta. Naiyaravoro 2, K.Beale
Pen - B.Foley 3, K.Beale
Con - B.Foley 3
Cards - T.Naiyaravoro (62nd min yellow)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1:James Leckie
Assistant Ref 2:Michael Hogan
TMO : Peter Marshall
1. Toby Smith, 2. Pat Leafa, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Luke Jones, 5. Lopeti Timani, 6. Sean McMahon, 7. Colby Fainga'a, 8. Scott Higginbotham, 9. Luke Burgess, 10. Jack Debreczeni, 11. Tom English, 12. Mitch Inman, 13. Tamati Ellison, 14. Dom Shipperley, 15. Mike Harris
Replacements :16. Ben Whittaker, 17. Cruze Ah-Nau, 18. Paul Alo-Emile, 19. Sam Jeffries, 20. Scott Fuglistaller, 21. Ben Meehan, 22. Bryce Hegarty, 23. Sefanaia Naivalu
* Denotes Rebels debut
1 Benn Robinson, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 3 Sekope Kepu, 4 David Dennis (C), 5 Will Skelton, 6 Jaques Potgieter, 7 Michael Hooper (VC), 8 Stephen Hoiles, 9 Nick Phipps, 10 Bernard Foley, 11 Rob Horne, 12 Kurtley Beale, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper (VC), 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 15 Israel Folau
Replacements: Tolu Latu, Jeremy Tilse, Paddy Ryan, Sam Lousi, Mitchell Chapman, Pat McCutcheon, Brendan McKibbin, Peter Betham