Waratahs Season Preview - Green and Gold Rugby
NSW Waratahs

Waratahs Season Preview

Waratahs Season Preview

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?

bernard foley


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.

Taqele Naiyaravoro

Taqele Naiyaravoro


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.



  • Simon

    Wow. I knew the Tahs were in bad shape for the start of the season due to injuries and missing the opportunity to sign some Force talent, but seeing it all laid out like that is brutal.

    The Brumbies are looking good (perhaps just lacking a bit of depth in the backline), and the Rebels will surely improve (they literally can’t do worse, they’re guaranteed to finish at least 3 spots higher!), but the Tahs and Reds both look a bit of a shambles. The big difference with the Tahs is that they unquestionably still have the class – any super team featuring Hooper, Foley, Beale and Folau has no business aiming to finish middle of the pack.

    I’m not sure about that guaranteed two wins against the Sunwolves either. They surprised a few teams last year, particularly at home, and they play such an unpredictable game that when it goes right they can pile on the points. They not only beat but flogged the Blues at the end of last season, which is more than any of our teams can claim last year.

    • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

      The Brumbies have good depth in outside backs between Banks, Speight, Peni, Verity-Amm, Muirhead and Dargaville. They also have good depth in terms of strike centres between TK, Smith and Verity-Amm.

      However, I am concerned about what happens if one of our playmakers goes down, especially if it is Lealiifano as Hawera and Godwin just weren’t up to the playmaking duties last year.

      • Mica

        Brumbies have a few useful backs with Banks up and coming and Speight with class (he just needs to recapture form from about three years ago when he was probably best winger in Aus). TK is also class, but that’s only 3 of 5. Rest of brumbies are pretty pedestrian or not really proven. Peni may be the exception. This is in contrast to Brumbies pack which is as good as any and the halves have a case to be the best in Aus.

        • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

          Well, we will see. I think that Lealiifano is probably the best 10 in Aus based on his form in Ireland and the form of the other 10s, after the two Rebels’ halfbacks I think Powell is as good as any other Aussie one and so the only question mark in my eyes is over Godwin, who is great defensively and is apparently playing much better this year than last.

          Speight was very good for the Brumbies last year. I just thin that he isn’t quite good enough to be really good at international level.

        • Mica

          Agreed – TK can produce plenty of damage too.
          Pack is going to be a real weapon I think.
          Brumbie’s backrow of Pocock, Valetini and Naisarani should be pretty awesome too.
          Replacements are strong also in McCaffrey, Fakaosilea and Cusack – a bit of depth there. Great balance in this unit (would be even better with Fardy!!)

          Flow on should be space and time for halves and then space for backs.

        • Simon

          Yeah I think the real threat in the Brumbies’ backs is going to come from their forwards and quick ball from Powell/Lucas. We saw it last night. You don’t need a backline full of Hurricanes when the opposition are backpedalling.

        • Mica

          Really good point on Lucas who hasn’t really been discussed yet. He should push Powell all the way and keep him honest. This should be really good for Powell’s continued progress as he can’t afford to have second year doldrums!

      • Simon

        Yeah personally I’d call the outside backs depth adequate rather than good. Banks, Speight and Peni are quality, the others are decent players but they aren’t putting fear into any opposition teams.

        Depth in the halves is the real issue as you identified. Lealiifano’s return is miraculous on a medical level but also a huge relief to the team. I feel a lot better about the loss of Cubelli seeing Lucas in action last night though. Not just his play at 9 but his defence and even getting involved in breakdowns when he needed to. It’s been said before but the Lucas boys are tough as nails.

        • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

          In the Super Rugby quarterfinal last year Dargaville was by far the most effective attacker in the first half (the half we won) and was making meters every time he ran the ball.

          Verity-Amm was one of the Force’s best attackers in 2017 after Peni was injured early on.

          Muirhead impressed away vs the Kings and Jags last year.

          Sure, they’re not Savea or aione, but I’d be pretty comfortable any of them starting over Peni. So they make fine back up in my eyes.

          I’d have any of them over Ah Wong or Toua, who we played a lot last year.

  • Jason

    I really see no reason that the Waratahs will have improved. While I am a Queenslander I am truly worried for the Waratahs this year, if anything they have looked to go backwards relative to the other Aussie teams.

    I think the Brumbies are the easy choice for top of the conference, second is a crapshoot.
    The Sunwolves should be an easy beat, but they have the capacity surprise a napping team.
    The Rebels have all the talent of a winning Super Rugby Club but none of the continuity they are quite possibly the best team in the conference but they are also quite possibly the worst.
    The Reds are probably the most interesting, while missing Quade Cooper (and likely Hunt) they have recruited Jono Lance, and look likely to promoting Hamish Stewart; as well as a host of other very talented young players. The only player not truly replaced is George Smith although Caleb Timu has shown flashes of being able to step up.

    Other than the Brumbies likely being first and the Sunwolves likely being last everything else is up in the air.

    • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

      I think the Waratahs have improved, but the problem is I think that the Brumbies and the Rebels have definitely relatively improved more.

      Have the Reds relatively improved more? Unsure, but I am somewhat optimistic for them.

      • Jason

        >Have the Reds relatively improved more? Unsure, but I am somewhat optimistic for them.

        I don’t know if they have ‘improved’ they almost definitely haven’t gotten worse (although relatively may have gone backwards). But where they’ll likely see improvement in my opinion are all their key players are under 25. So will get default improvement form those guys just getting older and stronger and smarter and everything else. The other thing is the coaching team of Thorn, McGahan, and Carozza are going to be very capable. McGahan is one of Australia’s best tactical coaches, his time at Melbourne was really not reflective of his abilities.
        So they’ll probably get more out of the talent they have then they were previously.

        As for the Waratahs, their only notable signings are Simmons, Staniforth (both locks); Beale and Rona. Beale should make a big difference, Rona I don’t really rate but should start.
        Staniforth is very good, but Simmons is ho-hum; lock was their weakest position of all last year but have now been brought to parody with the Brumbies.

        So in relative terms they’ll have almost definitely gone backwards in terms of raw talent. But as has been the case for a while now is the Waratahs get out much less than their talent is putting in.

  • Brumby Runner

    Hawko, I have to take issue with your description of the Tahs’ backrow. Two of them were consistent starters with the Wallabies and one was usually on the bench. Sometimes, iIrc, all three were on the field for the Wallabies at the same time. Hardly what you’d expect to be described as powder puffs.

    I also think it is a bit of a mistake to equate Staniforth to Hanigan. Staniforth just doesn’t have Hanigans speed around the park but in defense would be worth two of Ned. He is immensely strong in contact and a monster at set piece and is second to none in disrupting rolling mauls. Don’t be surprised if he makes the starting side for the Tahs not too long into the season.

    The issues with identifying the Rebels and Brumbies as the top conference sides are on the one hand the success or otherwise of integrating the players at the Rebels (as you mention), and the success or otherwise of the new coaching regime at the Brumbies.

    I have a feeling that the Rebels might miss a few wins early in the season until they work out their best combinations and get a full understanding and commitment to a game plan. The Reds are well in the running for an upset win in the first round.

    I am hopeful that the Brumbies will go good under McKellar, especially with Laurie Fisher there to help, and that they will play a more expansive style under Peter Hewat, but will hold my enthusiasm under some sort of control until I see the runs on the board.

    All in all, there is every likelihood that the Tahs could have quite an improved year over 2017.

    • Both Dempsey and Hanigan, especially Hanigan, were selected for the Wallabies before they were fully physically developed. While Dempsey starred when he finally got on, Hanigan put in a lot of effort for not much result because he didn’t have the physique and technique to make ground at the collision. Hooper is a one-off and has to be mated with big powerful men in the backrow to balance the overall skills. Even Cheika would not have been happy with the Wallaby 2017 backrow over the season.

      In the NRC I saw Staniforth make lots of runs but he got stopped dead before or at the advantage line on most occasions.Maybe he needs to make less hit-ups but be more effective with them. I wasn’t impressed that he was the big bruiser lock we will need and neither were last year’s Brumby selectors.

      The Waratahs only need to win five games to improve on 2017, but I doubt anyone would be happy with that.

      • Hoss

        My fearless prediction – if the Tahs are 0 and 3 then its goodnight nurse and Cronn handed the ‘interim / caretaker’ coach role while an ‘exhaustive world wide search for the right cultural fit’ is found – ie – Cronn appointed at end of season.

        • I suspect that’s a bit early. But 0 and 5, which is entirely possible, would just about do it.

        • Adrian

          Agree 100% if it’s 0-3, though I suspect it won’t be, and they’ll do fairly well

        • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

          Their second and third matches should be tough though, both away different continents. So much of the success at the start of the SR season is based on the draw. I think the Jags will be better at the start of the season than the end, and the Sharks look good.

          Most winnable match should be their first one against the Stormers, who lack both du Toit and Etzebeth, which should hugely improve the Waratahs’ chances. I would say they’d have to be favourites for that match.

    • Kiwi rugby lover

      Mate while I think you have a point, the end of year tour really didn’t show any of them in a good light. Those who were in the Wallabies were too light, had no dominance in either defence or attack, gave away too many stupid penalties and showed only average ball handling skills. I think Hawko nailed it.

  • Hoss

    Good afternoon Gaggers – good to be back amongst the brethren after a self imposed – Rugby free, soul cleansing hiatus.

    After the horrors of a Wallaby Northern tour (stay calm Hoss, stay calm, remember your breathing and the doctors advice) i thought i would take some time off, gain some perspective and embrace Frank Costanza’s ‘Serenity Now’ mantra. But one read of the Tah’s team sheet, prospects and general outlook my Tourette’s has returned (Waratoueretts Syndrome – google it) fuck,shit, damn ,ball-licker, fuck shit, fuckity fuck.

    As a Wallabies fan who follows the Tah’s it is not unexpected though. While the Rebs. & Reds were recruiting everyone the Tah’s back office were stumped playing Spider Solitaire – oh well, i have adopted the Rebels as my second Aussie team and to be honest i have been more energised by there proactive approach and energy – plus i put a few bucks on them when they were at $40 to win the whole thing, so my senses are enhanced.

    As a collective i think the Oz Conference will be much more competitive, just the Tah’s seem destined to be bottom 5, certainly not top 5.

    • The Reds got even less players from the Force than the Waratahs did. It was the Brumbies and the Rebels, particularly the Rebels that got most of the ex-Force players.

      • Hoss

        All true mate – but there’s something about the ‘team ethos’ that Thorne is building up in the Banana Republic that has me quietly optimistic about the Reds this year. I love my Tah’s but that same ethos disappeared from the Sky Blue jersey (for my eyes at least) when one M Cheika left. I think Gibson is a decent man & human being , but i don’t know / not convinced that the team will roll up their sleeves and ‘win one for the Gipper’ like they would for Cheika, Thorn or even Wessells. But what do i know – i will cheer louder than any if the Tah’s are successful – but i just dont get that vibe.

    • Kiwi rugby lover

      Hey Hoss, welcome back mate. I think this report is a bit too negative. The Tahs have got some challenges but they also have a pretty good squad. A lots going to depend on how much of the Grey defence has been kicked into touch where it belongs.
      Looking forward to this year

      • Hoss

        Hi mate – good to see you back here. You maybe right, maybe no hype and preseason BS out of Moore Park is a good sign and perhaps i am a wee pessimistic. There is some A grade cattle amongst them and perhaps Kurtley is the spark that ignites the fuse, i think this will be Foleys last chance (this season) he hasnt been the same since his 12 months of non-stop rugby during 2015 – Super Rugby, Tests, RWC then chasing Yen in Nipponville, straight back into another Super season and tests etc – it was nearly 2 solid years of Rugby and he looked listless and with a jaded Rugby mind and his game was very, very poor – hopefully he had some down time from the abomination that was the Northern tour (what was the Scottish score again !!!) – fingers crossed. Alot to like about the position RA finds itself in just before kickoff for 2018 . Castles appointment is a ripper and rather enlightened for the RA Boffins. Kearns no doubt has the acumen, but the message his appointment would have sent was completely wrong (‘more of the same’) , the demise of the Aztecs in the West has seen greater depth in the remaining four – on paper at least, whisper has it the 4 sides are fitter than ever before, so – no bold predictions here, just a belief that from the dark days of 2017 theres a new dawn ahead.

        • Kiwi rugby lover

          Your points on Foley are interesting. We all love to bag him, and I certainly have as well. My biggest beef with him is that as a professional rugby player with nothing else to do except train and play he doesn’t seem to have done anything to improve his weaknesses. Hell, I reckon even I could have improved my kicking to be better than him if I practiced enough instead of having to work. Then on top of that he comes across to me as very arrogant, seemingly aware that no one is chasing his position so why should he bother to improve. Now I may be wrong but that’s the perception I get.

  • Moose

    Thanks for the wrietup Hawko. Just hope they do better than last year…

  • Jamie Miller

    Few points. First, the Tahs approach to recruitment last year was a shocker. Because they get the most spotlight/exposure, players generally want to go there. They had big holes at centre and lock, and were always going to sign players at prop and back row too. How on earth did they manage to let so many Force players go? Who decided to sign Rob Simmons instead of Adam Coleman? Seriously. Second, what has been really dismaying over the off season is to hear the same old message from Gibson: we need to be fitter, faster… ie. More of the same. The Tahs need to be able to do different things. They need a whole new defensive set-up and drills, root and branch. They need a backrow that has actual balance, not one where most of the players have an interchangeable skill set with each other (fast, fit, nottas). I don’t know what happened in the end of year review, but I would have thought these things were obvious.

    • Ed

      Defensive set-up will be one to look out for with Beale back. Will Gibson follow the defensive tango we see at the Wallabies or will Bernard and Kurltey spend more time in the front defensive line? I hope for the Wallabies that they are in the front line more.

      It would be interesting to see the value of ARU top-ups for each SR side. You’d think the Tahs would have the highest amount of the four sides.

  • Adrian

    I think the Tahs could well surprise.

    Currently I’m in N. Hemisphere, and people I speak to think that Hooper, Beale, Folau are in their “World Team”, with Kepu on bench.

    They have about 6 or 7 other guys with Test experience.

    I think Gibson will have a simple, but effective defence.

    If he doesn’t, Con will replace him early in the season, and the team will go well under him.

    Biggest worry for Tahs is not having Kepu for 3 weeks, and not having Dempsey for 3 months.

    Overall, the team has a mix of classy players and “also ran” players, with not much inbetween.

    They seem to lack grunt, by guys like Shambeckler Vui might add a bit.

    In a conference where each Australian team has about 10 guys with Wallaby caps, it will be tight, ..

    I’m tipping Tahs and Melbourne to fight out leadership of our conference

    • D. Braithwaite’s The Brumbies

      There’s an argument for Hooper making a ‘world team’, but the Kiwis wouldn’t have them as apparently they think 7s need to be about 107kg minimum.

      Hooper, Sean O’Brien, Sam Cane and David Pocock can all lay claim to being the best 7 in the world, depending on the way one wants a 7 to play.

      Between Beale and Folau (and even big TN) the Tahs should have the best attack in the Aussie conference.

      Questions remain over defence, set piece, breakdown work, discipline and their kicking game.

      Simmons should massively help the set piece, and if Dempsey comes back in good form (it is a serious injury he has) then breakdown and line out should be assisted further.

      It is defence, discipline and particularly the Tahs’ kicking game that are the big worries, I think. The Waratahs’ lack of a kicking game has left them exposed since the 2015 semi, just as the Wallabies’ lack of one has left us exposed since the 2015 WC final.

  • Mica

    I think one of the issues for the defence is the Tah’s inability to have defence that can attack.
    There is no really stopping power in the forwards and the approach seemed to be just try and drop the player without knocking the ball carrier backwards or making ground in defence (getting the attacker behind the ad line).
    Further to this there was no real ability to turn over the ball. No real ruck turnovers unless Latu was playing and turnover ball seemed to rely on getting to the tackled player before the ruck had formed. When playing NZ sides this basically meant that you were relying on them to make a mistake in attack, especially when the opposition was in their attacking half and 22.
    I always got the feeling watching that when the opposition was playing a controlled attack it was only a matter of time before they would score as the Tahs weren’t able to get their hands on the ball and force the issue.
    Compare this to say a Chiefs or Crusaders side who have forwards knocking runners backwards and then guys like Cane and Todd attacking the ruck and getting their hands on the ball. In these circumstances the defence is able to disrupt and at times dictate terms even without the ball.

  • Braveheart81

    Whilst I’m not overly upbeat about he season ahead I’m certainly more positive on the outlook than Hawko.

    In terms of recruitment I don’t think it is as terrible as you have suggested. Sure it would have been great to sign Adam Coleman but Simmons was in negotiations months before it was clear the Force were being cut and would Coleman have come to Sydney anyway? Like a lot of the Force he seemed fairly wedded to staying with Dave Wessels. Who knows how Matt Philip will go this year. I think Simmons and Staniforth will do a solid job and there will be recruitment opportunities from the Rebels for 2019 due to how many players they have.

    Rona is a strong recruit as is Lalakai Foketi. If anything, I think Foketi could win the 13 jersey for round 1. In terms of backline needs from the available Force players, filling the 13 jersey was clearly the highest priority.

    I think Alex Newsome is a quality player and will most likely start for the Tahs this year on the wing.

    Sham Vui is an excellent prospect at prop and realistically could be the best of the Force front rowers to sign. Ainsley is better now but who knows where they will be in a year or two. The Tahs need someone to replace Kepu post 2019 RWC, not a starter now.

    The Waratahs definitely have a hole to fill in the backrow until Dempsey returns. Hopefully Holloway has a strong season and gets back to the form he had in early 2016.

    I think the Brumbies are rightfully favourites for the Aussie conference but I expect the Tahs to challenge hard and be significantly better than they were in 2017.

NSW Waratahs

Grew up watching Catchpole and Hawthorne, then later the Ella brothers, on Channel Two on Saturday afternoon. Expert commentary by Cyril Towers. No better rugby education ever to be had.

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