A brutal 2014 win over the Chiefs was a turning point for a Waratahs team that became Super Rugby champions, and prop Sekope Kepu is hoping for something similar against the Chiefs this weekend.
The 33-17 victory in New Plymouth showed that NSW were contenders, and though the Chiefs aren’t at the same heights this time around, it could prove just as pivotal a game.
Kepu remembers a pivotal moment in the match, a brutal Tatafu Polota-Nau hit on Sam Cane, one that he heard more so than saw, setting the tone of the game.
“That was something, one of the loudest collisions I’ve ever heard and I (remember) walking into the sheds at half-time and he had a tooth missing or something,” he recalled.
“His tooth was in his mouthguard and that was credit to the man he is.”
Then Waratahs coach Michael Cheika had hung a cowbell in the rooms before the game, in a hostile environment, reminding his team what they were after.
They were able to ring that bell after the match, taking a piece of Chiefs symbolism with them, and a powerful slice of confidence against a team defending a Super Rugby crown.
“We had a little one in the sheds that we put up as a challenge to the team – Cheik put up as a challenge to the team that if we’d won (we could ring it),” Kepu said.
“Because it’s their symbol and it’s theirs, that was our theme.
“If we could beat them and work harder than they did on the night then we had the right to ring the bell.”
Four years on, and their trip to Hamilton is shaping as a critical one for their 2018 campaign and Kepu can see similar threads running through this team.
“Some of the younger guys now, the experience is maybe not there but a lot of the guys are putting their hands up and they’re starting to believe that because they’re actually doing that themselves,” he said.
“Obviously Throbo – Tom Robertson, he’s obviously a testament to that – he’s playing really well.
“He’s playing really good footy lately and that’s only going to get better with the weeks to come and more footy and the team and the chemistry come together.
“It’s almost similar to what it was in ’14, we started off slow, then you just get a roll on and you build confidence in everything as the season goes on.”
The Waratahs don’t have Polota-Nau this time around and the Wallabies won’t have him in June, but Kepu said he felt the next generation of hookers could cope.
“Not really to be honest. You’ve got Jordan (Uelese) and those guys that’s been there and Tolu (Latu) got an opportunity on the weekend and we’ve got a lot of young guys but a lot of guys that have shown in the past that given the opportunity they can step up.
“I’m not sure what Cheik’s got in plan, but you can always back the plan he’s got, regardless.”
Forwards coach Simon Cron has praised Latu for his work ethic in recent weeks and said on Monday the hooker had delivered enough to push himself back in the regular frame.
“In this game, he ran through the door and did his job when he came on. Got himself in a really good position for a carry close to the line, got on ball, slowed their ruck speed down and he’s strong,” he said.
“So, scrum time he really helped Sham (Vui) out, the two of them were a good combination for us.
“I think he did everything we asked of him coming on the field.”
The Waratahs take on the Chiefs on Saturday night, kicking off at 7:35pm local, 5:35pm AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS.
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