By STEVE McMORRAN
2014-03-23 06:01 AM
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- A budding partnership between Wallabies fullback Israel Folau and midfield star Kurtley Beale is transforming the New South Wales Waratahs into serious contenders in a Super Rugby title race made more even by the loss of its last two unbeaten teams in the sixth round.
Defending champions the Chiefs, unbeaten in three games, went down 18-15 to the Western Force in Perth at the start of a three-match road trip while the Durban-based Sharks, winners of their first four matches, lost 23-19 to compatriots the Bulls.
The Sharks held on to first place on the championship table, two points ahead of the ACT Brumbies, whose 25-15 win over the Stormers carried them to the top of the Australian conference. That conference appeared the strongest in the tournament as the Waratahs and Force posted notable victories.
Folau scored his seventh and eighth tries in four matches in the Waratahs' 32-8 bonus-point win over the Melbourne Rebels. Both tries were created by Beale, whose career curve has started to take a new, upward swing after off-field incidents fueled by alcohol forced his early departure from the Rebels.
Sport almost always has a circularity, and it was against the Rebels on Friday that Beale demonstrated not only the extent of his rehabilitation but his return as the best playmaking midfielder in the tournament.
To an extent, Folau has been able to ride on Beale's shoulders. Almost all of his tries have had Beale's hand in their construction and many have come from the simplest of one-twos: A Beale line break and inside pass to Folau at full pace.
But it is also Folau's instinctive understanding of when that break will occur, of where that pass will be directed that has made the partnership so effective and made the Waratahs perhaps the best attacking side in Super Rugby.
Tries to Peter Betham and Folau in the first eight minutes of the second half, both created by Beale with breaks and offloads, set the Waratahs on the way to their third win in four matches.
"Kurtley's a very dangerous player once he gets quick front-foot ball," Rebels coach Tony McGahan said. "There's no better player to be able to pick out a weak defender in the line and to exploit."
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who broke a coaching box window in response to his team's loss to the ACT Brumbies, was more sanguine. He said Beale "maybe tried a bit too hard" in the first half against his former teammates but focused in the second half and played a match-winning role.
"It's a sign of how Kurtley is maturing that he didn't panic," Cheika said. "He just stuck to his game, made one nice little manoeuvre at the start of the second half, which put Peter Betham over for the try. That settled him down and then he got going from there."
The Waratahs were beaten semifinalists in 2010 and finished fifth in 2011 after being beaten in a qualifying playoffs match. The intervening years have been lean and they have fallen well below their potential.
Cheika this season seems to have found a more rounded combination. He has strong tight forwards, including the Wallabies prop Benn Robinson, who made an early appearance off the bench on Friday to lock an improved scrum, and lock Will Skelton, whose workrate is formidable.
The loose forward combination of captain Dave Dennis, at No. 8, and flankers Michael Cooper and Jacques Potgeiter is outstanding and Potgeiter was particularly industrious on Friday as a ball-carrier and in cover defense.
Commentators may reappraise the strength of the Chiefs after their 18-15 loss to the Force, who completed three straight wins for the first time in seven years. The Force were easily able to shut down the Chiefs, who were top point-scorers last season.
The Bulls also posted their third straight win in beating the Sharks, rallying from 13-6 down at halftime with tries to flanker Jacques du Plessis and centre JJ Engelbrecht.
The ACT Brumbies needed a penalty try a minute from fulltime to clinch a 25-15 win over the Stormers, and the Queensland Reds gave up a 17-point lead to lose 23-20 to the Johannesburg-based Lions. The Reds were reduced to 13 men for the last 10 minutes.
The form of the New Zealand teams continued to be poor. In addition to the Chiefs' loss, the Auckland-based Blues blundered their way to a 40-30 win over the last-place Cheetahs, and the Dunedin-based Highlanders beat the Wellington-based Hurricanes 35-31 in a match that flattered both sides.