Waratahs in crisis: how did it all go so horribly wrong for NSW? | Bret Harris

The future of the 2014 Super Rugby champions hangs in the balance after a 12th straight defeat

There is an old saying in rugby union that when NSW is strong Australia is strong. But no one would want to rely on our oldest and biggest rugby state at the moment after the NSW Waratahs’ 59-23 loss to the Highlanders in their Super Rugby Trans-Tasman game in Dunedin became their 12th consecutive defeat, equalling the worst losing streak by an Australian side.

Along with Queensland, NSW forms the heartland of the game in this country, producing most of the professional players and potentially attracting the largest fan-base. That is why the Waratahs’ woeful results this year are a disaster for Australian rugby – both from a high-performance perspective and a commercial point of view.

Support for the winless Waratahs in the hyper-competitive Sydney sports environment has all but disappeared. Yet, just seven years ago the Waratahs won the Super Rugby title, defeating the Crusaders in front of more than 60,000 spectators at ANZ Stadium in Homebush.

How did it all go so horribly wrong?

When former NSW coach Michael Cheika guided the Waratahs to their maiden Super Rugby title in 2014 he was the master of player retention and recruitment, two key areas where the franchise has suffered in recent years. Cheika retained a hard core of players, recruited high-profile rugby league convert Israel Folau, brought Wallabies Kurtley Beale and Nick Phipps back to Sydney from Melbourne and added South African back-rower Jacques Potgieter to the mix.

But the championship-winning Waratahs team that Cheika built was gradually dismantled. The problem was that as NSW’s best players retired or headed overseas they were not replaced by the same calibre of talent. The Waratahs achieved mixed results under Cheika’s successor, former NSW assistant Daryl Gibson, but never looked like a team that could challenge for the Super Rugby title.

By the time New Zealander Rob Penney took over as coach last year the Waratahs’ playing list was nothing like the roster Cheika assembled, particularly in relation to experience. They decided to build the team around members of the 2019 Junior Wallabies, who narrowly lost to France 24-23 in the world championship, the so-called “golden generation” – players such as Will Harrison, Angus Bell, Will Harris, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Joey Walton and Carlo Tizzano.

But that was always going to be a long-term strategy. In the short-term the Waratahs focused on surviving the financial challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, spending $1m under a salary cap that had already been reduced by $1m. The move was designed to keep the Waratahs financially viable and they did manage to achieve a $3.5m profit in challenging circumstances, but at what cost to the reputation of their brand?

In hindsight, the Waratahs should have spent another $1m or so to buy a couple of players to fill positions in which they are critically lacking – tight-head prop and second-row – but even that probably would not have been enough to save them. It did not help that Waratahs captain and talisman Michael Hooper chose this year to take a sabbatical in Japan, leaving the side further depleted.

The future of the Waratahs hangs in the balance. Much will depend on who the Waratahs appoint as head coach. When Penney was sacked after a 0-5 start in Super Rugby AU, he was replaced by his assistants Jason Gilmore and Chris Whitaker as interim co-coaches. It seemed the top job was Gilmore’s to lose. The coach of the 2019 Junior Wallabies, Gilmore was close to the young generation in the Waratahs’ squad.

But the Waratahs have not shown any real signs of improvement under Gilmore and Whitaker, perhaps the only Australian team not to have progressed over the course of Super Rugby AU and Trans-Tasman.

Defence is a major concern for a Waratahs side, which has conceded an average of 56.25 points a game this year. With one game to go against the Chiefs at Brookvale Oval on Saturday night, the Waratahs are on track to surpass the Southern Kings’ concession of 45.8 points a game to become the worst defensive team in the history of Super Rugby.

The Waratahs scratch their heads when they score a lot of points, but still lose. There is no point to getting into a scoring shoot-out with Kiwi teams because you will be out-gunned.

While the Brumbies had more than an ounce of luck, they provided a blueprint for beating New Zealand sides when they defeated the Hurricanes 12-10 in Canberra last Saturday night with an enormous defensive effort. It was ugly, but they got the win, just the second Australian victory from 20 games against the Kiwis.

Interestingly, Waratahs chief-executive Paul Doorn was quoted as saying Gilmore’s performance had to be viewed in the “context” of the circumstances, indicating he was still a chance.

Whoever gets the Waratahs job, he will have an enormous amount of work to do to re-build the team. It took Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn four years to rebuild the team to become Super Rugby AU champions, but can Australian rugby afford to wait that long for the Waratahs to turn themselves around?

Contributor

Bret Harris

The GuardianTramp

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