Israel Folau drama shunted aside as Waratahs tame Rebels

The Israel Folau sideshow failed to affect the Waratahs' on-field performance as they inflicted more misery on the Melbourne Rebels with a come-from-behind, Bernard Foley-inspired 23-20 victory that could reignite their season.

Just after half-time, with his side trailing 20-7, Daryl Gibson summed it up beautifully: "It's who's going to blink first."

The Rebels then conceded eight straight penalties to all but self-combust and throw away a 13-point lead and suffer their 14th loss from 16 starts against a Waratahs team with a clear psychological advantage over a Melbourne side that left the SCG shattered.

Captain Michael Hooper was outstanding in his 100th game for the Waratahs, who are now four points behind the Rebels in the Australian conference.

"We knew if we stuck to our game plan and sharpened up in our penalties we were a real shot," Hooper said. "I'm rapt to get a win there. Tonight was a direct reflection of how those players trained."

Rebels coach Dave Wessels said: "In the first half we had an attacking mindset and I think in the second half we maybe didn't. It hurts a lot. It's a game we really wanted to win."

This time last month, Folau surpassed Doug Howlett's record for the most tries in Super Rugby and outside the sheds afterwards was relaxed and mostly unfazed by his latest achievement.

The sky was the limit for Folau, his standing in the game in his control. One social media post has threatened to curtail his career and perhaps more urgently, the Waratahs' season.

Oh how the Waratahs would have loved to have gone to Folau in the air when the scores were level.

The beauty of this team is they have a number of stars who can step up in a time of need and while the likes of Foley and Kurtley Beale did so, it was a subdued Waratahs changeroom after their fourth victory of 2019.

"It's a weird feeling," Gibson said. "We've won a game but the emotion of the week and to come out with a win has been good but a strange feeling. It takes a lot out of people emotionally and mentally."

The NSW No.10 produced a mixed bag to begin with. He executed a brute of a tackle on Tom English to turn the ball over but on two critical occasions couldn't find touch when the Waratahs had penalties.

By the end, Foley was kicking left-footed and steering his side around the park with real conviction.

His opposite number, Quade Cooper, was overshadowed and lost grip on a Wallabies No.10 jersey.

A slippery ball meant Cooper had to be shrewd in his game management and find grass with his kicks.

The defining moment of the duo's head-to-head battle came when a more determined Foley all but plucked the ball out of Cooper's possession from an overthrown lineout before streaking away and dotting the ball under the black dot to – after his conversion – level scores at 20-20.

There was even a brief scuffle on the ground between the pair in a match where pride was on the line.

"He had those two errors early ... and that can put you off as a five-eighth … but I'm really pleased he came back," Gibson said. "Remember that movie Tin Cup where the guy kept having a crack? That's what he did."

A Foley penalty in the 65th minute gave the Waratahs the lead while a Reece Hodge attempt shortly after hit the post in dramatic circumstances.

"It's still early days but that bloke has so much ticker," said Hooper of Foley. "He rises to the challenge when he gets put under the pump. He had a great game and led us so well."

There was a concerted effort by the Rebels defensive line to rush the Waratahs and at times it stymied their ability to get over the advantage line.

"Slowly but surely we clawed our way back into the game," Gibson said. "I'm really pleased with the grit we showed, particularly given the circumstances of the week.

"Both teams came out with clear plans they were going to play territory. I thought we controlled the ball and dominated territory for large parts. I thought Kurtley was a real standout in that regard."

This match had a plethora of match-ups with potential Wallabies ramifications. While claiming Super Rugby points was one thing, outclassing one's opposite number was arguably more imperative with Michael Cheika sitting in the SCG stands.

For example, Rob Simmons fared better than incumbent Wallabies second-rower Adam Coleman. His sharp offload to Harry Johnson-Holmes led to Adam Ashley-Cooper's try in the first half and overall he was solid.

The Rebels lost winger Jack Maddocks in the space of two minutes due to a head collision with Cam Clark but the visitors took an early 3-0 lead.

It was loose-carry galore in the opening half an hour, with big names Beale and Karmichael Hunt spilling hard-earned ball at inopportune moments.

At least Beale, the side's new fullback, made up for it with some excellent work under the high ball and a knack of finding space when he did what he does so well – look up and play what's in front of him.

The most costly knock-on of the first half came when Alex Newsome couldn't pick up a loose pass on the ground from Will Genia. Billy Meakes swooped and went over the line untouched to put the Rebels back in front.

Hodge extended the lead by exploiting a gap created by two tired bodies in Damien Fitzpatrick and Michael Wells on the stroke of half-time.

Trailing 20-7, the Waratahs thought they had a five-pointer in the 47th minute courtesy of Johnson-Holmes but the TMO could not find enough evidence to overturn the original on-field no-try decision that the prop was held up.

However, with all the momentum, NSW once again spoiled the Rebels' party with some clever rugby and sent a reminder they should not be the forgotten ones in the Australian conference.