For the obsessive fan the end of January brings a subtle change of thought and mood. Trials have started and despite the heat its only a couple of weeks away from the first game. Indeed the Saffers kick off their first games this weekend. Hope, long dormant since last seasons’ disappointments, begins to rise again, however irrationally. What will this season bring for the Waratahs?
For Waratahs fans, that hope appears misplaced. Since last year’s debacle, for which nobody but a few assistants were held responsible, we have seen a distinct lack of recruitment activity. All the best Force talent headed elsewhere, including for those positions where the Waratahs were particularly weak. The locks and backrow, such a weakness last year, picked up only Simmons and Staniforth who are both similar in style and skillset to Hanigan. The back five forwards seem to lack anyone with the power and hitting ability of Coleman, Naisarani or Phillip, who were all available for recruitment this season.
The saga with Ben McCalman’s recruitment has been a fan nightmare. With the Waratahs lacking a power 8, he would at least have provided some starch, but a month ago rumours surfaced that he was carrying a serious injury and the silence since has been deafening. So, he’s probably a no-show for the season. With a major injury to Dempsey last year, a knee injury to Hanigan in the trials, Phipps and Beale injured in training, Kepu suspended, the team for round one seems to be more question marks than certainties.
In the backs, Beale returns and he will provide a real creative spark. But attacking backs last year weren’t a problem; defensive alignment was a far bigger issue. The two new signings, Rona and Newsome, should help. Rona, at outside centre, can defend and should enjoy working outside Beale, though to my eyes Newsome looked pretty pedestrian at the 10’s.
There have been some positives: Latu’s pilfering skills were on show in the 10’s, Gordon and Mason were in fine form on day 1 though maybe not so much on day 2, Naiyaravoro is back to game wieght and is shredding tacklers. Perhaps the trial this week against the Rebels will provide a clearer picture.
The coaching shake-up sees Gibson taking personal responsibility for defence and Simon Cron comes in as the new forwards coach. He has a growing reputation for good team management. These two appointments will be crucial. Last year the Waratahs scored enough points to win 12 or 13 games. They just leaked so many tries that they often lost 50-30. The forwards never had the ability to stop the opposition momentum as other teams just kept pushing forward slowly until they could release their backs on the outside. Gibson takes one issue, Cron the other. If both get it right the Waratahs will have a hugely better year.
Super Rugby is hard on every team. The game intensity, the constant travel over long distances and multiple timezones, make it tough for everyone. The Jaguares always get the worst of it , the Sunwolves are still travelling heaps but their timezone issues are substantially reduced. Everyone else is pretty equal.
The Waratah draw looks reasonable, with three SA conference teams first up, two on the road. Round 5 against the Rebels after a world circumnavigation will be tough. Then its a mixture of derbies, with no NZ teams until after the second bye. It could be a lot worse and the team gets the opportunity to hone their skills before the difficult NZ teams appear. The Waratahs miss the Bulls and their bogey team the Highlanders this year.
- The Sunwolves look set for the wooden spoon. Their squad has not been substantially strengthened since last year. All the Australian teams should clock up at least two wins.
- The Reds without Cooper and probably Hunt look to be in disarray. Smith’s injury could be season-defining. Their pack however should not be under-estimated – they look young and strong.
- The Rebels have lacked cohesion thus far, but with a star coaching team and lots of talent they could be the best Australian team. Their issue is whether they can meld the Rebels/Force into one effective unit early enough to not fall behind.
- The Brumbies look like favourites to top the conference with their usual, disciplined approach and no-nonsense play. The Valentini/ Pocock/Naisarani backrow looks potentially devastating – is there a better backrow on paper, even in NZ?
So third in conference and missing the finals appears to be the most likely season outcome for the Waratahs.
Each year in Super Rugby there are always surprises. A team that looked mid-table makes a big run to the finals, a favourite gets a few key injuries and heads down the table. You’d expect the Crusaders and Hurricanes to be the top two contenders, the Brumbies and maybe the Rebels to make the finals, the Lions to fall back to the field without Ackerman and this year my smokey team to impress is the Sharks.
Could the Waratahs surprise us? Of course. But two things have to happen:
- Simon Cron has to turn a pack of powder-puff workhorses into a pack of mongrels. Set piece should be OK, but its in the loose where the pack needs to learn “how to knock them backwards” rather than “how to put them down”.
- Last year’s non-existent defensive system needs to be completely revamped. Unlike some other posters, I don’t mind Beale sharing the backfield defence with Folau, with the blind winger shifting to 12. That will work. But last year the “up and in” defence became a licence to concede tries. It needs to be replaced with fast, direct man-marking with drifting cover from the inside.
Unless both these things happen, we are in for a long and dismal winter. And we won’t need to wait for the end of the season, we’ll know by round seven. If defence and forward power are not showing by then, we can write off 2018.
So, third in conference and missing the finals would be the realistic expectation. To exceed that would be a surprise; the further we exceed it the greater the surprise. But hope, that most dangerous of emotions, still remains a spark in every Waratah fan’s heart.