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The Waratahs have banked a crucial derby victory against rivals Queensland but they are under no illusions about the challenge ahead this season.
There are the by now well-known risks associated with their up-tempo playing style, many of which were showcased in Brisbane as figures as unlikely as Jacques Potgieter and Israel Folau coughed up ball with alarming regularity.
There is also the winners’ risk, or the fate of all champions, who find themselves hunted the year after
But the Waratahs face a related but extra challenge, which was hit on simply by winger Peter Betham in the hours after their 23-5 win at Suncorp Stadium.
“Teams know what we’re doing,” Betham said. “We’ve got the Australian coach in our team so everyone knows our game plan. It’s finding the intricacies in our game to be a bit more diverse in our game plan – trying to find the opportunities that teams don’t necessarily see.”
Betham’s comments echoed Michael Hooper’s last months, when the NSW No.7 risked invoking the dark old days of the kick-tastic Waratahs with an appeal to a more nuanced style.
“It’s not all about running in tries,” Hooper said. “If we can build a 30-point win through penalty goals and a great scrum and maul performance I’d be so happy with that because it’s showing the opposition something different.”
There was evidence of that against Queensland, when NSW gained early ascendancy – and their first three points – at scrum time.
The Waratahs would prefer to use the ball from the scrum, but the fruits of collaboration between the tight five and scrum guru Mario Ledesma could signal the first signs of the adaptation they speak of.
The next challenge will be executing against a much fiercer and more unpredictable foe. The Waratahs spend a night in Auckland next week before heading south to Dunedin to play the Highlanders.
Set piece will again be under the microscope, but not as much the basic handling errors that made a convincing win over Queensland one of their least attractive nights out.
“Their attacking mindset is pretty outstanding,” Betham said of the Highlanders’ threat-laden back line.
“We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and select the best team, and we have to come with a game plan. With their threats in hand there’s got to be a big defensive focus.”
New Zealand’s stubborn under-achievers will be riding high after a late upset over the Chiefs away last week.
The competition favourites denied the southerners space at every opportunity but brutal breakdown work and winger Patrick Osborne’s 35th-minute try allowed the Highlanders to triumph in the end.
Betham’s contribution in his first start since last April will give Michael Cheika a selection dilemma. Aside from the New Zealand-born winger’s audacious second-half try, Betham too – playing out of position on the right wing – was guilty of the same errors that blighted the defending champions’ overall output.
Newcomer Taqele Naiyaravoro provided characteristic impact off the bench, but Betham has a unique connection with fullback Israel Folau, which was taking full flight last season before an ankle injury ruined the winger’s campaign. Many months of rehabilitation appears to have done little to dull their intuitive link.
“Working with a guy like Izzy he distracts defenders and makes a perfect opportunity for me to snipe in and set my wingers up,” Betham said. “The threat of Izzy is massive, you’re looking at him and not looking at me, so that’s when opportunities arise, for myself, Taqele and Rob Horne.”
The Waratahs will travel to New Zealand without No.13 Adam Ashley-Cooper after Cheika predicted the Test veteran’s unusual knee injury would rule him out for at least another week.
The NSW coach will be in no mood to rush Ashley-Cooper’s recovery given the length of the Super Rugby season and his importance to Australia’s world cup campaign.
That means more selection quandaries this week, and another opportunity for Betham to make himself indispensable to the NSW back line again.
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