PERTH ù The four competition points were invaluable, but NSW Waratahs coach Michael Foley was focusing on the bigger picture after Friday night's 23-18 Super Rugby win over the Western Force in Perth.
The Force rattled off 15 unanswered points in the second half to snatch an 18-17 lead, before two late penalties to Berrick Barnes gave NSW their third win of the season. For three straight games the Waratahs have fielded the same side, and it seems the continuity is paying off, with NSW (21 points) remaining right in the mix to top the Australian conference.
But more importantly for Foley are the notable signs of improvement his side are showing, with recent wins over the Sharks and Force giving the Waratahs vital confidence heading into the second half of the season. "It's so important to keep winning," Foley said.
"But as much as you're looking to pull the results in, you're also looking for little improvements in your game. Having Cliffy Palu go through to the 60-plus minute mark for the first time was a real plus for us. Tatafu (Polota-Nau) went through to the 70th minute mark. So some of the guys who have been carrying some niggles are gathering more and more (game time) each week.
"It's not going to be too long before we have a couple of other players return as well.
"To notch a win (against the Force) is really good from the point of view of the table, but also really good for the players to receive reward for the hard work they've been putting in."
The next five weeks could prove to be a season-defining period for the Waratahs.
Home games against the Rebels and Crusaders are followed by tough fixtures against the Brumbies (Canberra), Bulls (Sydney) and Stormers (Cape Town). Across the Nullarbor, The Force (13 points) are well off the pace with just two wins from eight games. Next week's bye will give them an automatic four points, but the Force have a mountain of work to do if they are to even come close to competing for top spot in the Australian conference.
"It's not ideal going into the bye with a loss but there's eight games to go and a lot of points on offer," Force coach Richard Graham said.
"It's up to us really ... we're going to roll up our sleeves and fight. We'll give a good account of ourselves."