Everyone can see it but no one inside the Waratahs wants to say it.
Nanjing Night Net

Wycliff Palu is different this year.

The NSW No. 8 is still imposing, built like the proverbial, with the same bulging eyes and appetite for contact he’s always possessed.

But so far this season he has been running around like a player half his age, tearing through defensive lines and busting up the mid-field with defenders scrambling to keep up.

As winger Peter Betham puts it – very quietly – ‘Cliffy’ is in “career-best form”. But try to get Michael Cheika to acknowledge the same and you run out of luck.

The NSW coach expresses only perfunctory satisfaction with his back-row veteran. That’s because he has come to see the Waratahs’ fortunes inextricably tied up in Palu’s.

“He’s a bit of a mirror for our team; consistency is key and every week we make sure the performances are tuned in for him,” Cheika said. “He’s doing well for us now and I’m sure if he keeps doing that we’re going to get advantages out of his play.”

Palu has been through enough hopeful pre-seasons and endured enough season-ending injuries to know to never count his chickens. With almost 10 Super rugby seasons under his belt, the 31-year-old takes each week as it comes, dismissing Betham’s statement of the bleeding obvious. “I think they say that every year at the start of the year,” Palu said. “We’ll just give it another couple of weeks.”

There is no denying, however, that the No. 8’s vintage form could be the foundation of a resurgent season at Moore Park. His performance alongside Michael Hooper and Stephen Hoiles and the rest of the NSW pack, was instrumental in setting up the Waratahs’ 32-5 demolition of Queensland on Saturday.

After two rounds and two bonus-point wins, the Waratahs are sitting pretty in the competition, yet Cheika is keeping the lid pressed down hard on early-season hype.

And while a passionate rendition of the Waratahs’ team song intruded awkwardly on the Reds’ post-match press conference on Saturday night, publicly NSW are playing it straight-faced.

“There’s going to be a lot of talk about the win but we need to stay level and understand that we’re just at the bottom of the mountain,” Cheika said.

“There’s two games gone, 14 to go . . . We don’t need anything else to sharpen our focus than to think back to round two or three last year when we got tonked by the Brumbies, and that game is coming up next.

“We just need to get ourselves ready to play that game and then one game at a time develop what’s lacked for us over many years, and that’s consistency.”

Palu credited a full pre-season with his form. After missing the Test season to have a knee operation last year, he spent the summer preparing for the start of Super Rugby.

“The last time I was in this shape was 2008-2009 and that was before the knee injury and all those consecutive injuries,” he said.

“You can say I had the time to work on a few things and get into the shape I was in back then.

“It’s been good, I’ve played five games in a row now [including trial matches] and that’s all I’ve got to keep doing. It doesn’t matter what level, whether it’s club rugby or whatever, I just have to keep playing.”

The old hands within the Waratahs will play an important role in keeping the team’s expectations in check as this season wears on.

The team has a bye this week before playing the Brumbies in Canberra on March 15.

“We’ve talked about that,” Palu said.

“We’ve won two games. In the past we probably enjoyed a bit too much our wins like this, so all the boys know what to expect. We’ll enjoy this win and come Monday, move on.”

The Waratahs escaped the derby without an injury. Fullback Israel Folau was taken off with 10 minutes to go, but with the score at 29-5 Cheika wanted to give Matt Carraro and Rob Horne some game time, he said.

Twitter: @geerob

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