Where the wheels fell off: The 2016 Waratahs
NSW Waratahs

Where the wheels fell off: The 2016 Waratahs

Where the wheels fell off: The 2016 Waratahs

Eight wins, seven losses, no playoff spot. So close, and yet so, so far.

Perspective matters. The tournament format has been a farce, and the Tahs record compares reasonably to that of a few teams who will make the playoffs. Losing Kurtley Beale was a big blow. And the Tahs had a large number of youngsters in their match squad every week, which will pay off down the track.

But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the team didn’t achieve its potential. A points differential of plus 96, and four losing bonus points, underlines this. Save for one great home win against the Chiefs, the Tahs never really looked like a top-shelf outfit. What went wrong and where can the team right the ship looking to 2017?

Composure

The final game of the year against the Blues was a microcosm of the season as a whole. The Tahs did enough good, positive, creative things to win, but shot themselves in the foot over and over. They scored four tries, but let in five, including a couple of really soft efforts.

Tahs v Chiefs 2016

The Tahs know this. “We just pressure on ourselves so poorly,” Waratahs captain Michael Hooper said in the post-match TV interview. “Get a really nice try and then we can’t exit our own area and teams get a try straight back on us and we’re back to an even playing field.”

Very true, but Hooper’s mangled syntax lets his insight down, much like the Tahs all year: two steps forward, one step back. Across the game on Saturday, every time the Tahs scored a try, the Blues scored one within 3 minutes.

Philosophy

Australian rugby is currently burying itself with a mindless ideological commitment to a certain style of rugby, regardless of conditions or opposition. The most invigorating aspect of the Wallabies’ superb World Cup run last year was their pragmatism. Team management realised that in a World Cup played in England in November, you’d have to scrum well, kick your goals, maul effectively, and generally force the opposition into making mistakes. They trained hard for that and executed it pretty damn well.

Fast forward six months and it seems like a distant dream. Like the Wallabies, the 2016 Tahs have been obsessed with playing up tempo rugby. They cannot play at a different speed. While they obviously spend a large amount of training time on high-octane passing, rucking, and offloading skills, other areas of their game, particularly the kick-chase and basic containment defence, are little better than club rugby standard.

The game against the Blues showed just how much mileage in rugby can be achieved by simply doing what your opponent doesn’t want you to do – regardless of what you, in an ideal world, might want to be doing. Two sets of scrums close to the line against a struggling eight, two seven pointers. Northern hemisphere refs would have added in a yellow card on each occasion too (as World Rugby guidelines mandate, it’s worth noting). There was far too little of this all year long.

Pragmatism is a must if Australian rugby is going to see success again.

Photo Credit: Peter Mitchell

Photo Credit: Peter Mitchell

Lineout

Awful. Not bad, awful. Not just this year, but for the last two years. The lineout plan needs to be scrapped and built anew.

Entire matches were lost because the Tahs lineout fell apart at key times. Even when they were winning their own ball, they relied very heavily on the front of the lineout, which denied them opportunities to use the ball with the opposition backs ten metres back. Opposition teams had little difficulty reading the Tah system and had a guy in the air contesting far too often. The major target against the Blues was Jack Dempsey, at just 1.91 metres.

One would have thought after the lineout cost the Tahs their semi against the Highlanders last year that this would have been a major, major focus of the team over the off-season, both in terms of the Who and the How. It wasn’t and they paid the price. Also see: recruitment.

Recruitment

In many ways, this was a rebuilding year. Guys like Andrew Kellaway, Tom Robertson, Hugh Roach, and Jack Dempsey have been around Moore Park for a while now, but only received consistent game time this year. All acquitted themselves well, though Kellaway’s skillset looks much better suited to the wing than fullback. The jury is perhaps still out on Reece Robinson, who found it difficult to inject himself into games when the ball wasn’t coming his way. David Horwitz didn’t get a lot of week-in week-out game time.

Photo courtesy of Keith McInnes

Jack Dempsey – Photo courtesy of Keith McInnes

It would be no surprise to see Angus Ta’avao and the Tahs come to a “mutual agreement” to end their relationship a year early. The ex-Blues tighthead looked really below par early in the year and, while he improved somewhat as the season progressed, it seems fairly clear that he won’t mature into the banner, Wallaby-qualified signing that Moore Park hoped he would.

Zac Guildford and Sam Lousi have both left, and the Tahs are probably not too upset about either. Taqele Naiyaravoro is incoming, and ex-Tah hooker Damien Fitzpatrick has been signed for the next two years, fuelling rumours that Taf is on his way out. The great man still has the goods and provides a lot of experience too.

For 2017, a key focus area has to be to fix the lineout. At lock, Australia under 20s player Ryan McCauley, a mobile lineout specialist, is only 19 but may well get a full contract. Ex-Samoa and Australia under 20s man Senio Toleafoa is also coming in.

With Dave Dennis leaving and Cliffy Palu unlikely to play again, the Tahs really should be looking at someone who can play at 6 and 8 and be a real contributor in tight, as well as the loose. A backrow of Dempsey, Hooper, and Holloway will be well suited to playing up tempo rugby, but won’t really allow the Tahs to develop the Plans B and C they need to defeat the range of teams they’ll encounter across the competition. Not for the first time in the last few years, letting Lopeti Timani go a few years back looks like a mistake. There will also be a major leadership vacuum, which needs to be addressed somewhere.

Jed Holloway sets off as Liam Gill appeals for an obstruction

Jed Holloway sets off as Liam Gill appeals for an obstruction

The other area where the Tahs will be looking is at 10-12. Beale is off to Wasps next year. Guildford’s departure leaves the Tahs with a foreign player slot open, and this might be somewhere where they think signing a marquee player could have a real impact.

Finally, there’s the front row. With Cameron Orr off to Gloucester and a real lack of junior props coming through, the Tahs will have to stock up here – especially if they can unload Ta’avao.

  • John

    “we can’t exit our own area and teams get a try straight back on us and we’re back to an even playing field.”

    Gee that’s a bit of an awkward comment, considering who’s core job it is. Similar problem to the Wallabies also with the same player.

    • Train Without A Station

      It’s Michael Hooper’s core job to exit their own area?

      • John

        ah, no. It’s Foley’s core job.

  • Duncher

    I’m still on a high from 2014…

  • Hugh Cavill

    This is a really good summary.

    Ultimately they paid for their slow start to the season, dropping those close games to the Highlanders, Brumbies, Rebels.

    The loss of Beale was huge, and it will be felt next season as well. I think the Tahs need to find another attacking circuit-breaker, to better compliment Foley and Folau.

    Some nice prospects in the forwards though, and it was commendable how they steadied the scrum over the course of the season.

    • Kiwi rugby lover

      Hugh, Don’t smash me but I really don’t see how Beale was such a huge loss. It may just be me but I always felt he was over rated. Despite the odd bit of brilliance I always felt he had more negatives. His defence was crap, despite one or two tackles he did make, I always thought he struggled under pressure which caused him to throw silly passes. Plus he didn’t seem to ever take the ball up into the tackle to relieve his team. Sorry but that’s just how I saw it.

      • Sam

        Kiwi, I may have agreed with you last year but the last 2 games Beale played this year were awesome – he took contact well, he defended well (surprisingly) and was the spark in attack that the Waratahs needed. I think it was the best he has played… then he got injured but that happens. The June test window really hurt the Waratahs this year. After a slow start, they built well and were really hitting their straps i.e. the chiefs win (without Beale), but they lost all momentum for the last 3 games (they started playing the Wallabies 1 dimensional play and showed their lack of coherence in defense). I think the team looked unfit or something – a bit like the Wallabies. No one really seemed to be busting their gut for the team. Looks like too much gym/mirror time and not enough hard work/fitness time to me.

        • Kiwi rugby lover

          I hear you mate. Maybe I’m just too biased after all the crap he did earlier. If he’d played the whole season I might have been able to change my mind but I jut never saw it

      • Hugh Cavill

        KWL, did you watch much of him this season? I think those criticisms were certainly fair in years past, but he really turned a corner this season, and IMO at the time of his injury he was the form player in Aussie rugby. Defence improved, found that extra half yard of pace, educated kicking game. A real attacking spark.

        • Kiwi rugby lover

          TBH mate I admit I am a bit biased against him because of all the crap he used to do off the field and I do let that cloud my judgement of him on the field but at the RWC he didn’t do much. Cheka didn’t play him that much anyway but in the final that pathetic attempt against Nonu (admittedly one of the worlds best 12’s) gave away a soft try. I think if he hadn’t got injured and played a lot more this year then it may have made me see things differently. I think the fact that he looked so good at times and then produced absolute clangers that just spoilt it all for me. Good luck to him in England I hope he goes well.

        • Hugh Cavill

          Have to agree to disagree on this one then, I thought he was great in the RWC too! Think we can both agree, though, that it’s a loss for the Tahs and Aussie rugby. When he is on he’s one of the best to watch in the comp.

        • Kiwi rugby lover

          I can certainly agree with you on that mate. When he was on he did some great stuff.

        • Who?

          I had massive, massive reservations over Beale in 2014. I thought the rubbish off field was enough to exclude him. And his form was, for the Wallabies, quite ordinary. But 2015 Beale was a flash back to much of the best of 2010 Beale (when he was nominated for WRPOTY), but with more maturity.
          I think for Beale, you’ve got to realize he’s not a 12. He’s an out of position 15, or a winger. He’s not a strong tackler. But he was the only genuine pace in the Wallaby backline at the RWC. He was joined by a couple of other quick players in the Tahs this year, but they didn’t have his vision for space. We had a bloke like that in the Wallabies through the 80’s and 90’s… Except he was a bit more driven and so didn’t have obvious off field issues. Now, he just throws barbs that often have people questioning him. He was known for being flakey, even blamed for losing a Lions series due to a ‘dodgy’ pass, but the reality was that even in that moment, his vision was just a bit too far ahead of his team mate, who didn’t realize there was opportunity, if he’d been ready. Yeah, I’m saying Beale’s a lot like Campo. He’s not Ella, he’s Campo.
          Everyone talked during the Tests about Foley needing a second playmaker outside him. No one talked about what happened when he went back to the Tahs. He had Horne at 12 (I’ve actually no problem with that), and a ball running 15. No second playmaker. What were the results like..? But funnily enough, I didn’t see that raised when Foley was playing for the Tahs…
          Beale provided that second playmaker regardless of where he was – at 12, on the wing or at fullback. He actually played most of the RWC on the wing, and he was, for mine, the only real spark in a backline that did enough to make the RWC Final.

        • idiot savant

          I agree with you Who. Beale’s best position is full back. It was a shame he lost his confidence under the high ball. He might have stayed there otherwise. His second best position is off the bench. He always adds something, unpredictability, pace. His lack of pure positional fit gives him unique value as a bench player. His greatest gift is reading opportunity combined with acceleration over 5 metres.. People call him a playmaker but he isnt really (his record at flyhalf is ordinary). He takes advantage of other people making the play. I would love to see him work off Kerevi because Kerevi draws the defence and always looks to offload and having Beale on his shoulder would cause anxiety among defenders. Beale and Folau have a similar relationship. He certainly has pace and unpredictability in common with Campo. But he is more like a League player to me. he has that natural support play instinct that many backs who grow up in rugby dont have.

      • Seb V

        All true Kiwi Rugby lover… if it was 2013. KB has been very consistent the last 2 or so years. KB is a HUGE loss, he is essentially the Tahs primary play-maker not Foley.

  • Carrick lad

    Can you clarify why you don’t think they’ll be bothered about Lousi going – I thought he made a positive contribution whenever he came on and generally improved balance of side.

  • kp

    The tahs are lacking a genuine fetcher and it shows at their breakdowns. While it’s fun having Hooper running like a back through the forwards he needs to first do his job as 7 – just an opinion.

    • Train Without A Station

      Nah. That was the least of their worries.

      If Hooper had finished top for pilfers he would have made less than 2 pilfers a game for a total of 26. He made 12. Is less than one pilfer per game what their season was missing?

      • idiot savant

        Its not turning over the ball thats key. Its slowing it. See Nic Bishop’s piece on another site. If you can regularly slow the release at breakdown for a number of seconds defence can re-align. What cost the Waratahs this season was the number of tries they let in (and not having Foley at the start of the season). But slowing the ball is not just the 7’s job.

        • Train Without A Station

          Didn’t seem to be any issue in 2014.

          Not securing quick ruck ball through aggressive clean outs across the whole team cost the Waratahs.

          Whether it be Skelton too slow, or Mumm too weak, these are where the Waratahs have been hurt.

        • idiot savant

          Yeah in 2014 the Tahs played more ball in hand and cleaned out well and quickly and scored a lot of tries. Defensive rucking didnt seem to be as critical.

  • dom par

    “Not too upset about losing Louisi?”. Speak for yourself.

    Louisi did everything Skelton failed at. Able to be picked up!, aggressive (without doing it in front of a ref!), ABLE TO ROLL OUT OF A RUCK, a good runner of the ball.

    I can’t speak about his scum abilities but I’d imagine he’d have that in the bag over Skelton as well.

    • Keith Butler

      Agreed about Lousi but looked a bit ‘lost’ at times during the Blues game. A big gain for the Canes who will knock him into shape. For guy with some much alleged potential Will Skelton has imo been a real disappointment at both super and international level this season. He really needs to knuckle down and do some serious work over the break so that he can play at 100% for the full 80 mins, contribute more at scrum, lineout and ruck time. Flopping on a pile of players does not cut it.

      • dom par

        He needs to be moved to 6 or 8, and lose 10kg before next year, thats for sure.

        • Keith Butler

          As a Rebels supporter 6 or 8 would suit me just fine. Even less effective than he is now. And make that 20kg.

    • Hugh Cavill

      I’m not a huge Lousi fan, and I don’t think he’ll be a huge loss. He is a decent enough player, but I can’t see him ever getting beyond ‘bench lock’ quality. Much rather see that spot taken by a young Aussie player, and there are a few around – Ned Hannigan and Ryan McCauley spring to mind.

      I think Skelton was much improved the last few rounds, but I think a lot of people here have made up their minds on him, so there’s no point arguing.

  • Kiwi rugby lover

    After seeing them grab two Kiwi’s, who both failed let’s face it, I hope that if they do recruit from off shore they do it smarter next year. I think they need a lock who can play in all positions and not compromise their lineouts, at least one loose forward who can do the graft so Hooper isn’t missed in this area.

  • teach

    Skelton was dead weight. A, smaller, fitter, faster player would have been more useful. He always seemed to arrive late to rucks and was content to drop a shoulder into a prone player. On attack he often seemed to collapse in a heap as soon as he was touched. Did no one ever explain a leg drive to him? I think he was chosen as someone with the potential to be an Aussie version of Retallick, but just does not have the athleticism or drive. According to wikipedia, Skelton is 1cm shorter and 19kgs heavier. That might explain a few things. At best, I would have used him as a supersub in the last 20. In saying that, as a kiwi, I hope Cheika starts him in all Wallaby matches against the ABs and gives him a full game.

    • Keith Butler

      I was also praying for Cheks to pick him against England and my prayers were answered. Retallick is everything as a lock that Skelton isn’t. One of the best in the world.

  • Huw Tindall

    The Tahs, like the Wallabies, have just missed some of the experienced heads and big names due to European retirements and injury.

    Kepu, AAC and Beale. Three of the best for the Tahs all gone. From leadership to skills they were all missed on field and probably off field too. Throw in the loss of Jackpot with his crazy eyed aggression and even Stephen Hoiles (more experience) and you’ve got a large chunk of the Tahs front line x-factor gone. On top of that you’ve got a back three with a young star on the rise, an ex Leaguie, and a troubled NZ veteran. Quite a lot of change.

    It would be remiss to lay all the problems at changing in personnel but it’s hard to give Gibson too much heat in his first year. Taking over from Cheika was never going to be easy. There were a number of articles earlier in the year around how different Gibson was to Chieka in ‘man management’. Chieka all firey and in your face and Gibson a lot calmer and circumspect. Even this would change team dynamics more than most would appreciate. To his credit, I thought the astute kicking game the Tahs brought against the Chiefs was a sign that Gibson was expanding on Cheika’s original game plan but the last 3 rounds haven’t evinced that.

    Time to put the Tahs jersey away for another year.

  • Owen McCaffrey

    I would like to point out two early season loses when Foley came back from Japan and was inmediately injured in preseason. Tahs came right after that and just came up short. Foley never had a break

  • Gavin

    A bad start, they recovered, and then their best player did his knee. Unfortunate but that’s rugby

  • Bay35Pablo

    I have been saying for years our locks were the big gaping hole ….
    But then I am an ex lock.

  • Richard

    You want a bell-weather for the Waratahs this season? Look no further than Nick Phipps who plays in that crucial position of halfback – the link between the forwards and the backs.

    Phipps tried hard this season – he typically does. But he has no edge to anything he does, nor any creativity. He picks the ball up and passes it to Bernard Foley, phase after phase after phase. When it gets stupidly repetitive he’ll box kick it, or kick it out to give his forwards a rest. It is predictable, it is non-threatening and it is easily countered. Until Phipps can either mix his game up or build more creativity to his role then he, and the Waratahs will be comfortably picked off by smart opposition teams. We saw it this year – that trend must be addressed.

  • Mitch T Gray

    Yeah, I was thinking the same thing…

  • Chinese Dave

    Like there’s a difference…

    :)

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