THE brewing animosity that has bubbled on the surface for more than 25 years strangely spilled over into sympathetic words from Dan McKellar’s own lips.
“I feel plenty of sympathy for them,” the ACT Brumbies coach said after the game.
“Them” he spoke about was bitter enemies New South Wales and the sympathy arose from the home side’s record-breaking 61-10 result on Saturday night (February 27).
It would have been hard not to bask in the glory – a winning margin only bettered in their first Super 12 clash – of a wounded archrival haemorrhaging all over the Canberra turf after collecting not only the greatest victory against the Waratahs but of any Australian team.
In spite of an ingrained culture coming from Sydney headquarters of the disregard held for the small rugby enclave buried in the shadows of federal parliament, the respect for where the pillars of the game and much of its success in the nation lies still remains.
“I feel for them as a club, but for Australian rugby, we want a strong Waratahs side. They have had a tough couple of weeks,” McKellar said, pointing out to the 41-7 loss that NSW suffered to Queensland last week.
The coach, raised in Queensland and living in the ACT, was not reading from the script.
The derision that those in NSW originally had for the one-time minnow stretches back even before its 1996 entry into the Super Rugby competition.
Two years earlier amid the Super 10 incarnation, the Waratahs sacrificed a place in the final after protesting and refusing to play in apartheid South Africa – just 10 days ahead of that country’s first multi-racial elections were held.
The fixture was replaced several months later for the former monikered ACT Kookaburras that caused an unheard of 44-28 upset in Sydney.
The side that was steered around by an upstart halfback George Gregan and had a lanky teen named Joe Roff in it crossing for two tries was the only rival to beat the state in 1994.
The lingering defeat stayed with the Tahs until they crossed paths with the newly-branded ACT Brumbies, fresh off three narrow victories to start their inaugural Super 12 campaign.
The 44-10 win put the territory’s side, brimming with many NSW rejects, back in its place.
After the trips to Sydney, the partisan Canberra crowd embraced a 56-9 triumph in 1997 and the rivalry was sewn for years to come.
Bragging rights every year went the way of the hosts until Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie, a Victorian by birth, parked a big blue NSW bus around the capital in the week leading into the 2005 Canberra fixture to stir up the mind games.
It worked. The streak ended from the only try of a 10-6 away win.
Following a third straight victory the next year and despite the ACT winning 2001 and 2004 titles, the good ol’ Tahs had the wood over a subservient opponents seven wins to four.
But even the 18 wins to 16 head-to-head record these days fails to sum up the reversal of fortunes that has turned into a one-sided dominance.
The Brumbies have taken out seven of the past eight matches and the genesis of the once proud NSW entitlement of the game has evolved.
Just before that reign began, Troy Coker summed it up best in an interview.
The capped Wallaby backrower 27 times between 1987 and 1997 had gladly traded in his Waratahs’ guernsey for one of the Brumbies late in his career.
Coker would say at the time: “There was this entitlement thing around NSW rugby that the Canberra boys had a real distaste for.”