The Western Force produced a stunning 25-15 bonus-point victory to stun the champion Waratahs in Sydney on Sunday.
Chris Alcock, Angus Cottrell, Luke Morahan and Francois van Wyk all scored for the Force in a rousing win to kick off their campaign.
Too many inaccuracies prevented the Waratahs from really controlling a scrappy contest, with the tempo played to the Force’s strengths. Apart from the scrum, the Force dominated every department, in a performance that must have made their injured skipper Matt Hodgson very proud.
The champions were miles off the pace they set at the end of last year’s run to the Super Rugby title, despite retaining 12 of the starting XV from the final last August.
To their credit the Force never allowed them to settle, winning the physical collisions around the ruck and dampening any attacks that the Waratahs tried to put together from their rolling mauls.
Sias Ebersohn missed an early penalty to put the Force ahead in the 5th minute but made no mistake with a longer kick on the angle minutes later, giving the visitors a deserved lead after they dominated possession and territory.
Marcel Brache should have given them an even bigger lead but he couldn’t gather a charged down kick, the ball just bouncing up out of his hands with the line at his mercy in a comical moment.
The Waratahs’ favoured tactic of getting the ball out to Kurtley Beale, who would duly kick into touch, was a bizarre one. Getting the ball in hand was a struggle for the hosts, so kicking it away clearly drew frustration from their fans.
Foley levelled the scores with a penalty generated from the scrum, but there was real concern for Wallaby prop Pek Cowan. The veteran received lengthy treatment for a possible neck injury, being stretchered off after around five minutes of careful care from the medics.
The core of the Waratahs’ struggles was their inability to create any space for the powerful runners coming from deep, such as Israel Folau, but it was the Force who would be the first to score.
Alby Mathewson’s burst up the touchline created an attack that saw the Waratahs reduced to 14 men with Wycliff Palu in the bin. From the resulting penalty the Force kicked to the corner and Chris Alcock was in position to dot down as their maul rumbled over.
A mini-resurgence from the Waratahs to round out the half ended as expected, with Adam Ashley-Cooper dropping a pass under pressure to leave the Force 8-3 up at half-time.
It was more the same physical, abrasive fare from the Force after the break. Dane Haylett-Petty was only a Folau trysaver away from scoring in the corner but it did set up the visitors from a five-metre scrum. A number of phases passed before Angus Cottrell spotted a gap and dove in under the posts for the Force’s second try.
The way they’d been playing, the Waratahs didn’t look capable of threatening the Force’s 12-point advantage but they gradually started to stir.
Foley’s missed penalty didn’t deter their effort as a long attack ended with Mathewson heading to the sin-bin, and from the resulting tapped penalty the Waratahs found enough space out on the left wing for Rob Horne to score.
A 20-phase assault on the Waratahs line ended with no reward for the Force, with referee Steve Walsh starting to lose patience with the faltering scrum.
All the possession was going the home side’s way but their inaccuracies were crippling. A turnover on Folau saw Mathewson, back on the field looking for redemption, first drill the ball long before winning the race to the ball and angling a clever kick into open space for Luke Morahan to touch down and score. At 20-8, that looked to be the result sewn up.
The Force were sharper and hungrier in every department, driving the Waratahs back with the defence in the closing stages as the hosts grew desperate – inevitably ending with a Beale chargedown as replacement prop Francois van Wyk snapped it up and ran in the bonus point try.
Horne added a second try but the final decision from the Waratahs summed up their ineptitude, turning down a three-pointer for a losing bonus point in favour of tapping and going, with Paddy Ryan inevitably turned over at the breakdown.
Poor from the champions, excellent from the Force. The weekend of strange of results in Super Rugby ends as it began in Christchurch with another upset.
Tries: Horne 2
Yellow Card: Palu
Tries: Alcock, Cottrell, Morahan, Van Wyk
Yellow Card: Mathewson
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 Will Skelton, 4 David Dennis (c), 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Mitchell Chapman, 21 Stephen Hoiles, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Matt Carraro.
Western Force: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Kyle Godwin, 12 Solomoni Rasolea, 11 Marcel Brache, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Sam Wykes (c), 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ian Prior, 22 Zack Holmes, 23 Luke Burton.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Damien Mitchelmore (Australia), Michael Hogan (Australia)