Waikato rise to their coach's great expectations
Waikato's players were told they had to hit top gear from the outset, and that's exactly what they did, in a super showing against Wellington on Saturday.
The Mooloo men opened their National Provincial Championship season in fine style, with a 37-25 victory at Westpac Stadium earning them a valuable five competition points out of what looked like a tricky assignment.
There were eight debutants in the Waikato 22 and the province has endured two years without playoff footy, so expectations weren't set high by fans. But coach Johnny Walters had taken the opposite view, very clear with his players about what he expected.
"They're such good guys, quality-calibre players, that we said to them, ‘we expect you to do well, we don't expect you to need 10 minutes to warm into the game or a couple of games to warm into the ITM Cup, we expect you to hit the ground running because you're good enough'," he said.
And boy, did Walters get what he asked for, as Waikato dazzled with five tries in the opening 35 minutes, combined with some rock solid defence.
"It probably didn't look like it too much but we were pretty patient and we struck when the time was right," Walters said. "We talked about wanting to apply pressure on D [defence] and work hard to get our ball back. And obviously when you get your ball back, you turn that ball over, it's a pretty great time to attack."
It was a feature of Waikato's play that they were able to control the game as much as they did, and lay on six tries, when the final stats had them with just 34 per cent territory and 41 per cent possession. Waikato were forced into 152 tackles to Wellington's 72, but only missed 18 compared to the hosts' 22, while the Mooloos spent just five minutes in their opponents' 22 compared to 16 minutes for Wellington.
A three-try burst in seven minutes nearing halftime blew the game open for Waikato. Winger Joe Webber scored after a turnover was quickly spun his way and he straightened and showed his speed, hooker Brayden Mitchell crossed after a superb lineout drive, then from the restart second five-eighth Anton Lienert-Brown scored one of the best debutant tries you will see, going from inside his 22 right down the left flank.
First five-eighth Damian McKenzie struggled off the tee, but the 19-year-old is a sensational talent and showed classy touches in his first provincial outing.
Up front Waikato laid a solid platform, Nick Ross won plenty of clean lineout ball and the loose forwards worked brilliantly to allow captain Brad Weber to be his livewire self at halfback.