The NSW Waratahs are grappling with a thorny question about their next head coach. Do they appoint a promising, young coach to rebuild the team for the long term, or do they recruit an established mentor to try to achieve immediate results?
There are strong arguments for both approaches.
The Queensland Reds took a calculated gamble on former dual international Brad Thorn, whose only coaching experience was with Queensland Country in the defunct National Rugby Championship.
It has taken Thorn four years to develop a precocious Reds teams, but the investment is possibly about to pay off handsomely. The Reds are undefeated after seven rounds of Super Rugby AU this season and are challenging the Brumbies for the mantle as Australia’s premier provincial team.
Beat the Brumbies in Saturday night’s top-of-the-table clash in Brisbane, and they will almost certainly secure the minor premiership and advantage of a home final, giving them a splendid opportunity to win the title.
The Waratahs have a young, ambitious coach in their own ranks. Jason Gilmore was defence coach under Rob Penney and was appointed co-coach alongside assistant coach Chris Whitaker when Penney was sacked last week.
The team, perhaps buoyed by new-coach bounce, pushed the Brumbies to the limit at the SCG last Saturday night, losing 24-22 in a markedly improved performance.
If the Waratahs continue to show that kind of effort in their remaining games this season, Gilmore will be in a good position to take over the top job. It helps that he is close to several Waratahs players he coached in the successful Junior Wallabies team, and may have the potential to rebuild the club the same way Thorn did Queensland.
But can they afford to wait that long to turn their fortunes around? Once one of the most recognised brands in Australian sport, the Waratahs are in danger of becoming a national irrelevance. They need results and need them now.
It took Michael Cheika only two years to guide an under-achieving NSW side to their maiden Super Rugby title in 2014 and he was an established coach, having led Irish province Leinster to the Heineken Cup.
Speculation Cheika might return to engineer a revival have seemingly been ruled out by the man himself, at least for now. Even so, the former Wallabies coach offers the prototype of a big personality who can deal with management and ensure money is spent to retain and recruit the necessary talent to win.
NSW administrators will not only be assessing performances for the remainder of this season, but they will also be keeping a close eye on the Reds to determine whether Thorn is the role model they should follow or whether they should try to find another Cheika.
Which way they go could be influenced by the outcome of the blockbuster Reds-Brumbies game on Saturday night. This match is likely to be the second instalment of a trilogy of clashes between the two teams heavily favoured to meet again in the final.
In the first encounter the Reds came from behind to upset the Brumbies 40-38 at their fortress in Canberra, but that game was distorted by Queensland’s dominance in the scrum against a Brumbies’ front-row weakened by suspension and injury.
The return from suspension of Brumbies captain and tight-head prop Allan Alaalatoa could make all the difference.
Both the Brumbies and Reds are coming off wins, but Queensland’s 44-19 victory over the Melbourne Rebels in Melbourne last weekend was far more impressive than the ACT side’s narrow escape against the winless Waratahs.
The Brumbies led 24-10 at halftime but, unlike their record 61-10 win against NSW in Canberra earlier in the season, did not put them to the sword. The Waratahs fought back, outscoring the ACT side 12-0 in the second half. It was a promising start for Gilmore and Whitaker.
The Reds’ win against the Rebels was arguably the closest Queensland has come to producing a complete performance under Thorn’s coaching.
After the game, Thorn revealed he had been an “unwilling” coach at first, questioning himself, but fell back on successful habits he learned with the teams for which he played such as the NRL’s Broncos, the Crusaders, Leinster and, of course, the All Blacks.
Thorn is slowly, but surely, instilling those winning habits into his Reds.
They raced to a 24-0 lead over the Rebels after 20 minutes. Instead of wishing for a crushing victory, Thorn willed their opponents to respond because he wanted to see how the Reds would react.
He got what he was looking for. The Rebels reduced the Reds’ lead to 10 points at halftime and Queensland took the challenge, and especially important point given the next outing is against Brumbies are s defending champions.
It has taken Thorn a long time to get the Reds to this point, time the Waratahs may or may not believe they can afford to spend as they contemplate the crucial question of who to appoint as their next head coach.