WOLLONGONG -- The Wallabies' stocks of Izaia Perese and Angus Bell continued to rise as the Waratahs gave a decent account of themselves to avoid the astronomical thrashing that many had predicted they would suffer at the hands of the Crusaders on Saturday afternoon.
In the end, it finished 54-28 to the Crusaders, who picked up the requisite bonus point, therefore achieving exactly what they set out to do on a chilly afternoon by the Pacific Ocean.
But having produced a vintage display to put the Reds to the sword last week, the visitors weren't quite as polished in the blustery conditions at WIN Stadium in Wollongong.
But they were never headed either, despite the gap closing to just 10 points midway through the second half, with the usual suspects of Richie Mo'unga, Codie Taylor, Will Jordan and Leicester Fainga'anuku running amok at different times throughout the match.
Still, there were continued signs of improvement for NSW who had their moments with the ball, none more so than Perese who twice ripped the Crusaders' defence apart, the second occasion seeing him trample Will Jordan near the tryline to complete one of the tries of the match.
Perese certainly caught the eye of Crusaders coach Scott Robertson.
"Powerful, geez he's hard to get a shot on isn't he? Just keeps his feet, leg drive, direct, tough, yeah he can play," Robertson said
"He's on his way there [to being a Test player], with a bit more of setting his outside [players] up. From my eye he's got everything you need."
But the Waratahs continue to have serious issues on defence. Almost every time the Crusaders moved the ball into the wider channels they appeared to have at least a one-man overlap from which they easily slipped in behind the NSW defence and into the backfield
It was the sixth time this season the Waratahs had conceded over 40 points and the third occasion when they had leaked more than 50.
If the Waratahs are to snap their now 11-match losing streak before this season winds up -- they travel to Dunedin to play the Highlanders next week before a final round home game against the Chiefs -- then the defensive side of the game must be rectified rapidly.
"I think it's the cohesion, getting used to what each other's doing," Waratahs co-coach Chris Whitaker said when asked what his side's defensive issues were down to. "It's all about time in the saddle, I think, and getting used to each other
"The Crusaders are a dangerous team but if you look at it, if you look at the stats that we had after the game, I think they made eight line breaks and we made seven. So I think what they're good at is hanging onto the ball and going through their phases; they don't necessarily make line breaks but they make line bends and they just keep building on it and building on it.
"But the longer we can defend together [as a team], the better we'll get."
Again, NSW showed how dangerous they can be on the attacking side of the ball. Led by Perese, while Bell continues to mount his case for a Wallabies starting spot against France in July; back-rower Lachie Swinton was another to tear into the Crusaders with Jack Maddocks and Jack Dempsey also enjoying solid afternoons.
It is the uncapped Perese, though, who has continually made a case for national selection since his return from a three-week ban for a lifting tackle in the opening week of Super Rugby AU.
Having been a late scratching from last week's loss to the Blues, Perese put up the outstanding match stats against the Crusaders of six runs for 72 metres, with two clean breaks, 10 beaten defenders and the try to boot.
He must surely be in the running for a start in the No. 13 jersey against the French, depending on how Rennie decides to use Reds star Hunter Paisami, although Whitaker also had special mention for several other Waratahs players in Wollongong.
"Yeah he's been good for us [but] I think there was a few really good performances tonight," Whitaker said. "I think Jack Dempsey in his 50th cap tonight, he carried the ball really well; Jake [Gordon] made some great inroads.
"So there was a lot of positive performances out there and Izzy is definitely right up there."
The result however will do nothing to quiet the discussion taking place about exactly what route Rugby Australia should pursue for its provincial competitions from next year.
With two games to come on Saturday night, the ledger now stands at 0-12 against the might of New Zealand's five franchises, with the gulf in class further reflected by the fact that on only three occasions during the Trans-Tasman series have the New Zealand teams not secured the bonus point.
Asked to consider a Rugby Australia perspective, in terms of what the governing body should do with its teams for 2022, be it a repeat of this year's two separate tournaments or commit to a full-fledged round-robin Trans-Tasman tournament, Robertson was adamant the Australian game had to look to the longer term.
"You need to compete, you have to compete and if you stop competing you get left behind," Robertson said.
"It might seem pretty brutal at the moment but in the long run it's going to be best for Australian rugby, that's my belief."