SCG -- They had to work for it, but the NSW Waratahs are at 2-1 for the Super Rugby season after seeing off the Queensland Reds 28-17 in a gritty defensive effort at the SCG on Saturday night.
The only thing patchier than the attack from both sides was the SCG surface, which broke up at every scrum or maul, while the greasy conditions and whistle of Glen Jackson also proved central match themes.
Still, four wingers managed to get themselves on the scoresheet, the pick of the bunch being replacement Alex Newsome's match-sealer after he ran onto a delightful short ball from halfback Jake Gordon. Having moved from fullback to the right wing, Israel Folau was the only starting winger to miss out.
But there was no sign of the same demanding performance that Wallabies scrum-half Will Genia had delivered in Melbourne 24 hours earlier, with only Reds skipper Samu Kerevi and man-of-the-match Ned Hanigan producing any efforts of note for Michael Cheika.
While six tries were scored in all, both sides were guilty of a lack of accuracy in attack and an inability to clear their own line after scoring points themselves. What that did ensure however was that the contest remained in the balance until Newsome's 70th-minute try that quickly cancelled out Sefa Naivalu's score four minutes earlier.
The Waratahs led from start to finish but played much of the match without possession. They will want a greater share of the ball for next week's trip to Canberra to face the Brumbies, let alone the visit of the indomitable Crusaders seven days later.
"This competition is a tough one, the Reds are a tough side," Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said in praising his troops.
"They came here [with] a much-vaunted scrum, lineout drive, big bodies, ball-carry, and I felt our boys stood up tonight; we won in a different way."
While the Reds were anything but disgraced, they again relied on Kerevi for much of their attacking thrust. The skipper put in an admirable shift, too, answering Hanigan's bullocking try on the quarter-hour with his own pick-and-go effort seven minutes later.
If Cheika is to do away with his second playmaking option at No. 12, then Kerevi will surely come into contention despite playing one spot wider on Saturday night. As well as his own five-pointer, Kerevi helped lay on Queensland's second through Chris Feauai-Sautia with a neat step and pass late in the first half.
"Samu was huge tonight, he really led the way and he's doing that with his voice," Thorn said.
"But it just felt like, with the Highlanders, it felt like a high-level game of rugby; and then the Crusaders, a team that has been dominant for the last couple of seasons and going toe-to-toe with them; but tonight I felt, to be honest, we took a step back, which is disappointing."
The loss leaves the Reds at 0-3 and rooted to the bottom of the Australian conference, though their draw for the opening three weeks could not have really been any tougher. Still, after such a promising first-up showing in Dunedin, their solitary competition point will be a tough pill to swallow.
Just how Brad Thorn picks his players up for next week's trip to Tokyo, where the Reds were smashed 63-28 last year, will be a measure of the former All Black's coaching ability. Given the Sunwolves knocked off the Chiefs in Round 3 and then pushed the Blues all the way in Albany earlier on Saturday, the Reds are likely to be underdogs at the Prince Chichibu Stadium come Round 5.
"We're just competing every week, a lot of work's gone on in the preseason as you've seen, people have felt like there's been growth with the group," Thorn said of his side's 0-3 predicament.
"Tonight was really disappointing, but you do have those games.
"So we'll just be competing again next week, we're off to Japan, Sunwolves have been improving and are a competitive team. So we'll be there to compete and win games, that's where it's at."
As for Kurtley Beale's return to fullback, the veteran Waratahs utility had precious few moments to shine other than an in-and-away that put Curtis Rona on a sprint to the line immediately after halftime. Gibson indicated post-match he would likely continue to play Beale there as the Waratahs search for combinations.
But they were again very lateral and largely inaccurate with the limited ball they did see - just 29 percent to be exact -- a problem coach Daryl Gibson will want to confront before what looms as a huge test for his side's playoff credentials over the next fortnight.
"The Reds came with a game plan to hang onto it for long periods, no doubt about that, and they did that," Gibson said of the 11-point win. "I think for us at times we were guilty of turning that possession over too cheaply, something we've been talking about as a team over recent weeks and something, to be able to utilise the firepower that we do have, it's very important to hang onto the ball and really work on that ruck speed."