WARATAHS SEASON REVIEW (Part One) - Green and Gold Rugby
NSW Waratahs



It is with a heavy heart that I begin to put pen to paper (dinosaur, I know) to review the Waratahs 2017 season. Long time Waratah supporters will remember some pretty awful seasons. Remember in the 70’s and early 80’s when Shaw and Loane only had to turn up and we went to water? Those with shorter memories will remember 2012 and the Foley experience, which followed the Hickey years. But those pains have reduced to a dull ache. This year’s pain is still raw and relentless. Watching the Brumbies come up short yet again to a NZ team in the quarter final just opened old wounds. Why, with all our resources, weren’t we there instead of a team of discards from other franchises?

Photo courtesy of Keith McInnes

Photo courtesy of Keith McInnes


The pack was hugely unbalanced. The worst of it was in the second row, but it extended to the whole forward pack. Some will laugh when I say this, but only Skelton and Kepu in the pack were capable of physically dominating their opponent. All the rest were powderpuff workhorses. Now you need a few of those, but our whole pack fell into that category (cf. any of the five NZ teams). In the modern game, you stop the other team’s attacking momentum by laying on a dominant tackle. If you can’t stop that momentum you just get carted down the field, two or three  metres at a time. And that’s what happened. Other teams got on the front foot and just beat us down then released the backline once the holes appeared. Towards the end of the season we were starting with five backrowers – Hooper, Dempsey, Wells, Hanigan and Mumm were our selected back five. None of them should be selected anywhere other than the backrow.

Not only was the pack unbalanced, it had far too many young heads and not enough hardened oldies. Robertson, Hanigan, Dempsey and Wells should all be bench players, they have been brought through far too soon. (Cheika, incidentally, is making the same mistake). They are going to be ruined because they are not yet fully developed. All four of those players should have spent half the season in the gym, not starting Super and making Wallaby squads. Add in Wilkin, who got a bad injury pre-season and Holloway, who is not the same player after his injury last year, and you have a group who are way too inexperienced and too light for this level of Rugby. They lack the required power to compete at this level, which will come after a couple more years of growth and development. This continues to be perpetuated. McCauley, just 20 years old and 110kg, has a full squad place next year! He’s just not ready; it shows in his stats and his play in U-20’s. But, good luck to him – he’s one of the golden boys, annointed for greatness before he has actually delivered.

There was only one outside centre in the squad (Horne) and as soon as the grand Folau experiment failed we were stuffed. But, we had plenty of wingers – Jones, who I wanted to see more of, got no real chance at all and is now off to Sevens. Clark, Robinson, Kellaway, Naiyaravoro, Hegarty(!) all filled the spots without distinction. Clark, who seems to be Gibson’s poster boy, didn’t make one clean break all season that I saw, though he received very poor service.

Look for comparison to the Force squad. It is by no means perfect, but that squad is so much more balanced than the Waratah squad with far fewer resources. They chose from the leftovers basically. What would I have given to have Naisarani in the Waratah squad? Dempsey, Wilkin and Wells together as a package probably. Naisarani has the raw power an 8 must have that no one in the Tahs squad has.

Clearly there is a lack of ability in the coaching staff to sit down with a piece of paper and first work out what the composition of the squad should be, what characteristics are required for each position and then to match players to those requirements. Its my contention that if that had been done then at least six players would still be in the EPS and there’d be at least six different players with full squad contracts.

Jordan Smiler steals Dempsey's ball.

Jordan Smiler steals Dempsey’s ball.

To illustrate what I mean, here is Hawko’s 2017 squad (starters first). To those who would suggest I have perfect hindsight, I can only say I have had these views all season, and some judgements go back two or three years. I would have fought and paid to keep Alaalatoa, Lousi and Tui in the squad when they went because they are precisely the type of players we lack. Why we bought Wells instead of a big powerful 8 will remain a mystery to me forever:

Front row: Michael Alaalatoa, Latu, Kepu, Ryan, Fitzpatrick, Robertson. EPS: Matt Sandell, ANO, David Lolohea

Second Row: Sam Lousi, ANO hardman, McDuling, Skelton, Lukhan Tui. EPS:  ANO hardman not less than 23 y.o.

Backrow:  Mumm, Hooper, ANO big hardman,  Hanigan, ANO fetcher, Holloway. EPS: Brad Wilkin, Dempsey

Halfback:  Gordon, Lucas  EPS:  ANO

Five-eighth:  Foley, Hegarty.  EPS: Mack Mason

Centres: ANO 12, Horne, Horwitz, ANO 13. EPS: Irae Simone.

Winger/Fullback:  Folau, Naiyaravoro, ANO speedster, Kellaway, Clark. EPS: Harry Jones

Nick Phipps

Nick Phipps


The NRC seems to have truncated the preseason conditioning programs and Chieka’s insistence on giving some up-and-comers a paid holiday on the EOYT made the problem worse; but prima facie the squad conditioning and skills program this season was a disaster. The direction of the conditioning program, with its lack of emphasis on raw power and explosive strength, meant even Chieka reckoned the Tahs came into Wallaby camp underdone and spent half his training time on conditioning. As a result of being under-conditioned, the Waratahs would go missing in games for long periods, usually in the first 40, because they weren’t physically and mentally tough enough. Phipps’ recent comments about physical condition improving mental toughness in the SMH are instructive here.

There was something strange happening though. The only player to be directly criticised for his physical condition by Chieka was Tolu Latu and I and most other judges thought he was our best forward by a mile in the first half of the competition, managing to get over the ball and pilfer while all around him were yards behind. He became the backrow fetcher we didn’t have.

Our whole backline lacked the ability to pass under pressure in front of the man. Either they didn’t have any ability to start with (unlikely) or the skills training just didn’t enhance them. Support players regularly over-ran the ball because they were poorly positioned, if indeed they were fit enough to get into position at all.


Only four times did the Waratahs score less than 20 points in 15 games. How then did they lose so often? By leaking too many points at the other end. This was both structural and attitudinal. Structural, because the Nathan Grey defensive structures left huge gaps on the outside with a lack of effective cover. All you had to do to score was get the ball wide quickly and run like hell. Added to that, shooters were used (like Hooper) who frequently missed their targets. Shooters are only useful if you don’t miss your mark. [Are shooters a deliberate tactic or just real triers in a lazy defensive line? Discuss]

It was also attitudinal because the missed tackle count was horribly high. It was not uncommon for players to have 50% tackle completion rates, particularly in the backrow and midfield. And that doesn’t count at all the “I didn’t get near the play so I couldn’t miss” scenarios that arose with lazy forwards and otherwise brilliant backs. Folau is a brilliant attacking player but his cover defence is poor, and he was not alone. If you use up-and-in umbrella defence systems you’d better have some really good cover defenders. No one missed Phipps passing skills but we sure missed his wide cover this year.

Aidan Toua palms Hegarty

Aidan Toua palms Hegarty


As I thought my way through the squad list, I asked myself which players were held accountable for their poor performances. My list would have had Toleafoa, Holloway, Robinson, Kellaway, Simone and Phipps as players who were replaced/dropped/demoted at various times for poor performance. (The curious case of Latu’s dropping is not included because it was quite bizarre and I don’t think the full story has come out yet.) In a year of very poor performance that list looks pretty short. Stiles got criticised for dropping and sanctioning highly experienced individuals but he, at least, was demanding high standards and dropping players who did not meet them. The Reds will be better off for that next year. The same accountability standards would have had a number of supposedly key players dropped and yes, we would have had to troll through Shute to find some replacements, but I would argue that they would have done no worse.

At half time in the Jaguares game Gibson said “We knew we were light in the forwards”. The implications of that statement are breathtaking. Translation: “I knew I was selecting the wrong team but I did it anyway.” What was he thinking? You select the team based on the capabilities of the players and their recent form. That leads directly to making them accountable for their performance. But how can you criticise a player’s performance when you know they weren’t capable to start with?


There is absolutely nowhere to hide for the coaching and playing team. Standards have dropped so far from 2014 that we are now saved from the wooden spoon by only the Sunwolves and the Rebels. Sugar coat it how you like, the Waratahs were awful this year and no one’s reputation was enhanced over the season. Looking through the squad, only Latu, Kepu, Hooper and Foley lived up to expectations, Folau was good towards the end. I’ve tried in Part One to figure out as an outsider why that happened. In Part Two I will look at and rate individual performances and suggest where to from here.


  • Fatflanker

    “All you had to do to score was get the ball wide quickly and run like hell.”

    This. Absolutely spot on. Combined with the lack of dominant tackles you also mention, constantly leaving the opposition wings unmarked was a huge issue. Great analysis Hawko.

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    Wow! That’s hard hitting mate. It’ll be interesting how differently the official review compares. Agree with almost everything.

    About the only thing I’d say is that I think Mumm is a much better lock than a loosie. He isn’t dominant enough for either 6 or 8 and I thought played much better as a lock, even if about number 5 or 6 on the list overall.

    I think Hoopers lack of dominance in both attack and defence is his biggest weakness and something he really needs to work on.

    Looking forward to part 2

    • Jack Mallick

      There were times Hooper pulled them back into a game in spite of some of the others on the park. I think he is a dominant player, but not a bruiser like the pack needs.

      Yeah have a bad feeling the review will be a joke. If they wanted it to provide answers they’d get someone like Dwyer or Macqueen to do it.

      • Andy

        Agree. Hooper is defiantly a dominant player in attack and isn’t as bad as people make out on the floor. SR stats prove that. He just isn’t the player who can do it alone, few are. With half a dozen top players and the rest very able he is a great player to have in the team. 2014 and the WC showed that.

      • Kiwi rugby lover

        Mate I agree he is a dominant player but what I meant was he isn’t dominant in the tackle in either attack or defence. He definitely makes breaks and goes forward but if he takes the ball up he doesn’t dominate in the tackle, he gets pushed back, he also makes good tackles but he rarely makes people go back in the tackle, he brings them down while they are moving forward. That’s what I mean about dominance in attack and defence.

    • jamie

      I feel like Hooper is honestly our 2nd most dominant defensive player in Australia at the moment… Probably equal with McMahon. Pocock is head and shoulders above the rest of em. Even if the ball carrier has forward momentum in the tackle, there’s nothing more dominant than getting the ball back.

  • I feel like you’re holding back Hawko. Don’t hold back.

    There appears to be too many Richard Browns in the squad (high effort for little result) and I would include the captain in my assessment.

    • Jack Mallick

      There’s not even enough effort though.

  • Wallabrumby

    Very well said. The squad / team “Balance” argument is one of my biggest beliefs in what is needed in any good Rugby team. It really worries me that coaches do not see it Or they see it but fail to believe in it.

    It is a big reason in my mind why the Wallabies and Waratahs have regressed the last 2 years

    This year Brumbies and Force were the top 2 teams in Aus conference (look at the table), but looking at the team sheets should have been the bottom two. What the coaches and more importantly the recruiters have correct is the squad balance.

    Michael Hooper is perfect example of this, he is a freak, a great athlete and great Rugby player, but when playing him you need to balance the pack to get the most out of him and the team AKA Palu and Potgieter.

    Cheika needs to make some big calls positionally and I think (hope) he has the sense to see this.

  • 30 mm tags

    Great analysis, leaving so much out but still identifying areas to work on.How players like Hannigan and Robertson are deemed best available says a lot about our lack of depth. Looking at the accompanying photo above of Hegarty trying to tackle (was it Aidan Tua) shows how hopeless the defence coach is that he allows that standard of arm grabbing to be acceptable as a tackle. Lets hope some one in the paid position that they are in does some recruiting or its going to get worse, these blokes dont have the 80 minute desire to work as a pack.

    • Chris

      Tom Robertson is soft as custard. I don’t see how he is constantly being picked for the Wallabies.

  • idiot savant

    Mate, you could be my wife analysing my failings. Clear eyed, unsympathetic, brutal, irritatingly correct.

    • Kiap

      Spot on. And Hawko gets bonus points for this:

      “I would have fought and paid to keep Alaalatoa, Lousi and Tui in the squad when they went because they are precisely the type of players we lack.”

    • Pearcewreck

      It’s always easy to pick the faults of others though.

      • Chinese Dave

        Mate, there was so much wrong with the Waratahs, that the ability to filter it all down to what the main reasons were is admirable.

        • Pearcewreck

          Sorry, I meant that comment for idiot savant’s wife, not this article.
          This article is what needed to be said and is 100% spot on.

      • idiot savant

        in my case its too easy…

        • Pearcewreck

          This for you, idiot savant.

        • idiot savant

          Thats sweet. Cant ever see my wife singing it. Not even on Friday night Karaoke. Better not show ti to the Tahs either…

  • idiot savant

    You’ve highlighted an issue of mine with our current malaise – the value of the jersey. Why shouldn’t players have to wait, pour intensity into training, and excel at lower levels before they pull on the blue jersey, or the gold jersey?

    Ive said it before – DHP had to wait more than 3 seasons before he was considered for a gold jersey and then only as injury cover. As it turns out, that apprenticeship saw him strive to keep it and debut as a class player. Its a basic thing. Surely players who have to earn the jersey are better for the experience?

    Its not the players fault but the coaches and team administrations who are looking for quick fixes and instant results. You cant rush a good croissant. Cheka of all people should remember that from his time in the cafes along the Champs Elysees.

  • Nutta

    Brave article Hawko and I’ve got to say I agree so far.

  • Andy

    Top analysis. You hit the nail on the head when you identified the balance of the team being the main issue. It’s just so true. There’s literally none when you look across the team and it’s different components.

    And agree that some of the young guys are being thrown to the wolves. Hanigan and Dempsey are really good prospects but knowhere near being the good enough to be starting every week. They need mentors and time in the grades. How they are being considered Wallabies at this stage is unfathomable when you consider some of the options around the country.

    • Huw Tindall

      I remember a number of us armchair commentators pointing out the squad balance problem at the end of last year AND at the pre-season predictions! If us battlers can see it you sure as hell hope the pros can. Looks like the Tahs relied too much on a few big name players and promising youngsters. Missed a core of experienced Super rugby players to act as the spine of the squad.

  • brokendown

    still must be Micheal Foley’s fault!

  • Moose

    Great writeup Hawko.
    My summary of the Tahs season:
    Edit: emoji-poo image won’t paste dammit.

  • Tedward

    Great write up, could not agree more. How Gibson & co still have a gig at the Tahs is baffling

  • Adrian

    Generally good comments, and definitely on the money re the roster, and the balance of the roster Hawko

  • TheNutorious

    Will they just give Cron the senior job?

  • Pearcewreck

    Brilliant, brilliant summary!!
    More of this please GAGR.
    Well done Hawko, one of the best articles I read anywhere for a long time.

    Re the shooters from the defensive line, it always has been and always will be a high risk, high reward tactic.
    The Boks built a defensive structure around De Wet Barry’s ability to do it well.
    I’m sure all Wallaby fans member him single-handedly ending Steve Kefu’s career in Capetown in 2003.
    He was the master at it. He smashed Kefu way behind the gain line numerous times in that match alone.
    To do it well requires timing, judgement, pace and commitment.
    Personally, I prefer the defence to hold it’s structure, and work as a unit.
    That said, I do enjoy watching it done well, but it is so risky.

    Best place for use of a shooter is coming of your own line and shutting down the overlap when they are going to score anyway, classically the winger shooting up on the outside centre.

  • Chinese Dave

    Holy shit Hawko, your analysis is razor sharp. I hurt my neck nodding so much in agreement. So true about the lack of balance, can’t agree more. Hell, I agree with everything.

    The Tahs hierarchy should print this and hang it everywhere.

  • Pclifto

    A tour de force! Thank you

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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