Waratahs Super Rugby Preview - Green and Gold Rugby
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Waratahs Super Rugby Preview

Irae Simone on the burst in Waratahs v Highlander trial - Photo courtesy of Waratahs Facebook
Waratahs Super Rugby Preview

Einstein must have been a keen follower of the Waratahs when he said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used that created them”.

The Waratahs have not addressed persistent weaknesses in their team and despite a large number of personnel leaving and the opportunity to do so, they have not.

The weaknesses that come to mind are the weak set pieces, lack of pace, lack of a kicking game, and lack of creativity, flexibility, and adaptability. They play one way whether it is working or not.

Therefore Waratahs’ fans should expect highs and lows throughout the season.

Irae Simone – expected to challenge this year

Squad changes

Regular starting players that have moved on are Tatafu Polota-Nau, Dave Dennis, Wycliff Palu and Kurtley Beale.

Some other regular matchday players are not returning either: Benn Robinson, Jeremy Tilse, Sam Lousi, Zac Guildford and Matthew Carraro.

New players joining or coming back to the Tahs, whom I expect to make the starting team are Sekopu Kepu, Cameron Clark, and Taqele Naiyaravoro.

New players whom I expect to challenge to make the 23 are Damien Fitzpatrick, Jake Gordon and Irae Simone.

The scales have hardly been balanced. Even taking into account the expected continuing improvement of Jed Holloway and Jack Dempsey the Waratahs are weaker than last year.

The greatest loss is of Kurtley Beale, and no new players fill in the areas in which he provided points of difference. Beale added creativity, pace and a kicking game, and none of these have been addressed with the new players.

The missing Guildford was also pacy, and Robinson, the quickest in the squad, may not be chosen too often because he avoids contact too much.

Additionally Foley lacks creativity and play-making skills as a flyhalf and Beale formed a good partnership with him to help address these areas. Without Beale the Waratahs are quite predictable and lack spontaneity. This was evident last year with the performances of the Waratahs before and after his injury.

Kurtley Beale is greatest loss from 2016

Waratahs 1st XV

First XV most likely to be selected (not necessarily their strongest side)
Players with an * are new to the squad.

1. Tom Robertson
2. Tolu Latu
3. Sekope Kepu*
4. Dean Mumm
5. Will Skelton
6. Jack Dempsey
7. Michael Hooper
8. Jed Holloway

9. Nick Phipps
10.Bernard Foley
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro*
12. Rob Horne
13. Israel Folau
14. Cameron Clark*
15. Andrew Kellaway

Waratahs will be glad to have Kepu back

The scrum should be stable and competitive with the return of Kepu. However Polota-Nau, one of the best scrumming hookers in the world, is a big loss in this area. Additionally Skelton is a poor scrummaging lock; so overall the scrum looks average.

The lineout remains weak with the inclusion of Skelton.

The backline would have to be one of the slowest in super rugby.

The backrow is an area of strength and with all three players being quite young should see continuing improvement. This is consistent with how the Waratahs are spruiking the talents of Dempsey and Holloway and the impact they will make. If this pair keep improving will be Wallabies before the next World Cup.

The team on a whole is large and physical. This means the dominating, bruising style will continue to be played. Due to a lack of a kicking game, like last year, they will continue to keep the ball in hand and wear opponents down by running big forwards at them and keeping the ball alive through offloads, and getting over the advantage line.

This is a similar style to when Michael Cheika first coached them. The question remains, will Gibson bring in a new style in his second year as Head Coach?

Also having experienced halves with an established combination should be an advantage. They have three quality scrumhalves; so that is one key area at least that is well-covered, on paper.

The team will rely on strike players Folua and Naiyaravoro to score tries.

Jake Gordon – one of three quality scrumhalves this season

The Draw

1. Force – Home
2. Lions – Away
3. Sharks – Away
4. Brumbies – Home
5. Rebels – Away
6. Crusaders – Home

7. Hurricanes – Away
8. Bye
9. Kings – Home
10. Reds – Away
11. Blues – Home
12. Bye

13. Rebels – Home
14. Highlanders – Away
15. Chiefs – Away
16. Jaguares – Home
17. Force – Away

Overall a hard draw because three New Zealand teams are played away, and the harder South African teams are away. The byes are at good intervals. They do not have to travel as much since they play the Jaguares at home.

I expect the Waratahs to lose most of their games before the bye. Then to win most of their games after that.

Michael Hooper breaks away from the ruck in trial v. Highlanders  Courtesy Waratahs Facebook

Michael Hooper breaks away from the ruck in trial v. Highlanders  –  Courtesy Waratahs Facebook

Trial form

Trials results as predictors or indicators of competition success are meaningless. Players are coming and going and coaches try this thing and that.

For what is worth, the Waratahs had three trials.  In the first the Waratahs using mostly young players, including young leaders, had a good win against the Brumbies who played most of their best men.  In the so-called second trial, a few games in the Brisbane Tens, they missed a splendid opportunity to hone their ball skills and set up defensive structures quickly when the ball was turned over—or to reset for attacking when they got the ball suddenly.

In their last trial, against the Highlanders they were poor in the first half, as boys against men, but turned it around after half time and gave better than they got in a close finish.  It was worthy of note that their comeback was effected by many secondary players who may get more game time than we think this year.

The big picture

If you consider the big picture of the conference systems and the 2017 draw, then like last year only one Australian team will make the finals.

The Australian teams are playing the harder Africa 2 Conference teams whilst the New Zealand teams are playing the easier Africa 1 Conference sides.  It will be difficult for any Australian team to finish ahead of any Kiwi team. For two Australian teams to make the finals it requires both to finish ahead of two New Zealand teams and I can’t see that happening.

Waratahs could surprise this year


So what are the prospects of the Waratahs winning the Australian Conference and being the lone Aussie team in the quarter-finals?

They have a weaker team than last year and are playing sides from a harder Africa Conference.

The logical conclusion would be that the Waratahs’ results would be worse, but my conclusion is contrary to that.

A competition is relative to the other teams. The Brumbies have been weakened even more than the Waratahs have been. The Rebels, Reds and Force all have strengthened rosters however not to the extent to bridge the gap, and the Waratahs play the two weakest Aussie teams from 2016 twice.

Australian Conference – 1st and automatic quarter-finalist

Overall position 8th (but the Conference system will place them 3rd,)

I expect them to lose narrowly to the third-placed NZ team in the quarters, as the Brumbies did last year.

Waratahs Squad and Fixtures

See Australian Conference Super Rugby Preview here

  • Huw Tindall

    Good write up PK. After reading it though I feel a little down! I was thinking ‘must have written this before the Highlanders trial game’ but then got your point about the youngsters. Both against a pretty much full strength Brumbies and today against NZ’s #2 Super Rugby team the youngsters have really shown promise. Cause for optimism right there. Simone was immense and Hegarty played a great game off the bench and then there is the strong pack (bar the locks) to set the base for the season. We may need them given how lethargic and off the pace some of the Wallabies players looked!

    Think you really hit the money on the head at the start of the article though. Tahs haven’t really solved for the problems of last year…namely a sub-par kicking game and lack of a well rounded locking pair.

    As an optimist I’m hoping that Folau staying at 13 in defence this year means we can have a more traditional back 3. Hopefully one of them with a boot on them…Kellaway? Robinson who was handy off the tee today? Harry Jones? Matt Lucas has a pretty good box kick on him too and showed it today. Also Hegarty seemed to have a good hoof on him as well. Plenty of pressure on Phipps and Foley should keep things interesting.

    In the locks hopefully Ned Hannigan has a stand out year and combines well with a more svelte Will Shelton and good old reliable Dean Mumm to provide at least parity. At least the back row seems solid and even a couple of jumping options in Dempsey and Holloway to combat the Skelton effect.

    Here’s to positive thinking and bring on the Force!

  • nameface

    Have you forgotten about Robinson? I’d expect him to start (solves your pace problem) and is a decent goal kicker

    • He mentioned Robinson.

    • PeterK

      he is reasonable quick but not genuine pace

  • Braveheart81

    Thanks for the preview PeterK. I’m probably a little more upbeat about this season for the Tahs than you are and I don’t think the Kiwi teams will be quite as dominant as last year.

    Based on last night’s trial, this would be my team for week one.
    1. Robertson 2. Latu 3. Kepu
    4. Mumm 5. Skelton
    6. Dempsey 7. Hooper 8. Wilkin
    9. Phipps 10. Foley
    11. Horne 12. Simone 13. Folau 14. Robinson 15. Kellaway

    16. Roach/Fitzpatrick (not sure if Fitzy is injured because he didn’t play last night)
    17. Ryan 18. Lolohea 19. Hanigan 20. Wells 21. Lucas 22. Hegarty 23. Naiyaravoro

    I disagree that the team lacks pace. Robinson is as fast as anyone in the comp and all the backline has decent pace. Even big Taqele showed a good turn of speed to outpace a Highlanders outside back to score last night.

    Simone was outstanding and should wear the 12 jersey to start the season.

    Kellaway is struggling a bit and I could easily see him lost his spot in the starting XV. Hegarty at fullback is definitely an option. He looks really sharp.

    Gordon blew his chance last night. If I was picking purely on form it would be Lucas starting with Phipps on the bench. Phipps will start though but Lucas has to be in the 23.

    The scrum is solid and the lineout with Latu is better than it was last year. Roach’s throwing was a bit of a concern though.

    • PeterK

      Robinson is not that quick.

      Naivalu, Naholo, Skudder, Ben Smith, that type of pace is needed somewhere

  • McWarren

    My god, reading this and Lee’s conference preview I might just cancel Foxtel and for that matter winter altogether and take up water colours.
    I for one am pretty excited about this year in general. As a Reds fan I am a natural optimist, you have to be. But I think the Tahs have the bones of a pretty good team. Their backline is certainly not the quickest but Robinson and Kellaway have some tow. I am concerned by the continual presence of Mumm and Skelton as locks, but the front row and back row actually look pretty exciting too me.
    To be honest I nearly stopped reading halfway down. I thought, how can you and Lee predict the Tahs to win the conference and in the same breath be so utterly despondent about their chances. I’m not looking forward to the other previews.
    I guess getting over last season is going to require more than just an off season hey?
    Thanks for the preview Peter, I appreciate the effort you fella’s go to.

    • PeterK

      I wrote both, lee forgot to put my name on the aust conference review

      • Lee Grant

        Yep – guilty as charged.

  • Twoilms

    As negative as ever. Robinson is really growing into a wing role, coaches have been around a little longer with relatively the same group of players, there are more talented young players coming through than just Dempsey and Holloway. Only Beale can’t be replaced and Simone looks like one to in the future anyway. We will do better this season relative to the Kiwi sides.

  • idiot savant

    While I agree with a lot of your prognostications, I am troubled by your view of Foley. For two main reasons. Firstly, we need several experienced flyhalfs to win the next world cup and only a brave gambler would bet on us developing someone who is not Cooper or Foley in the next two years to guide us to a RWC victory. So, we need them both. My biggest frustration with Foley is that he does not take command. He has a bunch of playmaking ability but has resisted the call to be the general. Personally I think Cheik should ask Gibson to make him captain of the Tahs and make him take command.

    Secondly you say that Foley ‘lacks creativity and play making skills’ and make an argument that Beale is the greater playmaking weapon. I disagree with both propositions. Beale is not in Foley’s class as a creative playmaker – Beale has struggled at number 10 for Australia and the Tahs and played better at 15 and 12. Beale is a brilliant running back who can take advantage of the opportunities that playmakers give him like few others. One example among many is the try Foley scores against England in the last RWC. Beale sees Foley switch sides (the key playmaking decision) and follows him. Foley makes the play. Beale gives him the inside ball option, Beale makes the break and Foley backs up to score. Its playmaker and follower doing their stuff. There are many examples of this. Foley is not the finished article by any means and is unfortunately a weak and poor kicker but from a decision making point of view Foley is a natural playmaker. We can argue that the Tahs wouldnt have won the Super rugby comp without Beale, but Im certain they wouldnt have won it without Foley.

    • PeterK

      I never meant to infer Beale was a playmaker in his own right.

      The point I was making Foley lacks in this and creativity. So 2/3rds of a playmaker, he needs someone like Beale to add that 1/3rd he is missing.
      QC is the only complete playmaker in aust rugby.

      • idiot savant

        As the Nobel laureate said, “Everybody needs somebody.” Foley needs game breakers he can set up, QC needs a shrink.

  • Xaviera

    Thanks for the write-up.

    I can only assume PeterK that deep down you’re a big Tahs fan, so you’re working on the theory of under promise and over deliver.

    At first glance, it would be fair to think that the Tahs might have been a bit slack in their recruitment, but I think digging deeper, there are some surprises, and pleasant ones. The front row is strong – three Test props, one of whom is truly mighty (Kepu) and two who are at different stages of their careers, but both improving (the ever impressive Tom Robertson and the much improved Paddy Ryan). Paddy is also part of the leadership group and given his form at the back end of Super Rugby, and NRC, I expect he will have impact. The uncapped props also look good. The hooking stock is better than we might think too. If they were all fit, I’d have Fitz, based on his NRC form. HUGE work rate, and a sense of maturity and far less likely to have a brain fart, unlike Latu. Locks a bit trickier, but the old hands have a hungry Hanigan nipping at their heels, and despite the hate for Dean Mumm in many a rugby forum, this one included, he is universally respected within both the Tahs and Wallabies setup. Backrow is outstanding, and Dempsey is clearly in the ascendancy as the mongrel six that we’ve been missing. Like Latu though, he has a tendency to brain fart, so that will need watching. Wells is not a classic star, but he too has a high work rate, and will fill the void until Holloway returns.

    The backs are fascinating. Three excellent halfbacks, with Lucas coming off a massive NRC and Phipps hungry as a result of playing second fiddle to Genia. Add in the other form NRC halfback in Gordon, and there are good options there. Gordon was shown up against the Highlanders, albeit by Aaron Smith, who himself had plenty to prove. Options at 10 too, with the incumbent Wallaby 10, plus an in form Hegarty (who can play most backline positions). 12 is Simone who is a MASSIVE talent – just watch any Norths or Rays match from last season, or the second half of the Highlanders trial. Still only 21, he is the real deal, and will cut lesser defences to shreds, whether it be with his step, his pace, his fend or his angle. And he can tackle. I’ll have two to take away please. 13 is Izzy, who I expect will enjoy his second season in the role. The back three I think will vary according to the opposition, but this week it’s Horne, Robinson and Kellaway. The latter looked out of sorts against the Highlanders, so he may have a niggle.

    As to the speed of the team, especially the backs, the Tahs coaches rate Robinson as fast as any, and that’s based on hard data. Simone is also quick, and strong, and with a step. Phipps is deceptively quick too, with a huge motor, so all is not lost.

    Kicking has some upside too. Simone has a monster boot – he kicked for Norths last year, and Hegarty kicks long too. Interestingly, Robinson did all the place kicking at Brooky, even before Foley disappeared, and he kicked well.

    Finally, game plan. Having sat in the Tahs’ coaches briefing prior to the Highlanders trial, they will definitely be bringing a more refined game plan this season. They acknowledge they need to evolve, and provided evidence of that. Which is handy, because they’ll need those smarts against their biggest banana skin team, the Force, on Saturday.

    Can’t wait for Saturday.

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