After watching the Waratahs last week, I was forced to check my tea for random hallucinogens that might have drifted in on the wind or something. What the…?
The Tahs were all of a sudden carrying on like genuine title contenders, and although it was a welcome form reversal, the big question remained: can they deliver the same performance two weeks in a row?
They lost against the Bulls, of course, but the game that they laid out was by far their most positive and enterprising for the last dozen or so matches, and one which would have beaten any other team in the competition.
Among the positives was their willingness to play on quickly from both phases and free kicks, as well as their appetite for contact. The Waratah forwards clearly relished the physical exchanges, and surprised the Bulls, who traditionally dominate the breakdown area with a brand of animal confrontation reminiscent of their namesake in a china shop.
The most surprising development was the rebirth of halfback Luke Burgess, who revived the flickering embers of his rapidly fading Wallaby career by taking a few lessons from his usurper. Will Genia’s stock-in-trade is the judicious snipe, combined with the laserish shift from the ruck to 10-plus-one.
Burgess, who was previously reduced to “standing over the ball like an emperor penguin” (to quote another canny columnist), suddenly realised that the action wasn’t in the post/10 channel, but in the 10-12 channel, particularly against the Bulls who salivate over dumb bullocks charging blindly into the close contact.
By shifting the point of contact to the middle of the field, he allowed his runners to bend the line and occasionally get in behind it, forcing the Bulls forwards to turn and chase.
In terms of their recent below-par efforts, it was a staggering and welcome change for the Waratahs and their aggrieved fan base.
However, the pressing question is exaggerated rather than quelled by the turnaround, and that question is “What exactly is the Waratah style?”
This might be paraphrased as “How exactly are they trying to play?”, or even “What is Chris Hickey’s preferred style?”
But no matter, all three questions are equally difficult to answer.
Hickey is the rugby equivalent of John Key*. You know he has an importantish job and he appears in the papers occasionally, but as for what he stands for or where he’s going – one is never quite sure. To the layperson, at least, his philosophy remains clouded and his methods unclear.
Contrast the Waratahs of 09/10 with the Bulls, or the Hurricanes, or the Chiefs.
You know the Bulls will play for territory, and use their forward-dominance to set up for close range tries and field goals. The Hurricanes will punch up the 12 channel and try to break the line, supported by a large and angry back row. The Chiefs love to counter, play wide to their back three, and when the opposition are stretched, get Brendon Leonard to slice them up close in.
And they all do it so well, that even though you roughly know what they’re going to do, it’s still pretty hard to defend against because when they play to their preferred plan, they control the flow of the match.
But with the Waratahs? Who knows?
It would be great if it was last week’s version where they played the Bulls at their own game – a physical, uncompromising brand of rugby, punctuated by flashes of brilliance and only occasionally brittle defence.
But you could perhaps argue that the true Waratahs style is a sort of bastardized Force/Bulls cross, which utilises a lightish forward pack to play field position with a conservative general such as Halangahu or Barnes.
Or is it a tryhard Brumbies model, where the forwards run like backs, but minus the try scoring?
I still can’t put my finger on it and it’s frustrating, because the Waratahs have so much depth.
They have 3 of the top 6 or 7 flyhalves in the country in Daniel Halangahu, Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale, and a thousand or so possible backline combinations. Halangahu, Beale, Drew Mitchell and Sosene Anesi could all play fullback, for example. Barnes, Tom Carter, Beale, Josh Holmes and Halangahu could all play 12.
It’s in the second row where the real selection conundrums begin. Imagine sitting down and trying to work out your most effective combination from Dean Mumm, Will Caldwell, Kane Douglas, Dave Dennis, Cam Jowitt, Hendrik Roodt and Chris Thompson.
And then who should go to the blindside flank? Mumm, Dennis, Ben Mowen, Jowitt, Ben Coridas or Chris Alcock?
Too much depth can be confusing, and until the Waratahs can settle on a specialist lineup which works to a distinct game plan, it will continue to lurch from good game, to not-so-good game.
They risk becoming a team of generalists, rather than utilising their depth to develop true specialists in each position. Developing specialists shouldn’t be a problem. After all, it’s not like they’re being forced to utilise players in unfamiliar positions due to lack of depth.
So which comes first? A solid game plan, or a team that can play to it?
There’s not much point in building a you-beaut strategy if you don’t have the players to carry it out. But with the Tahs, you’ve got pretty much got the men to carry out whatever plan you might be able to dream up.
And therein lieth the problem. Are we playing field position? Taking them on in the pigs and then going wide? Counter attacking? Sniping around the fringes? All of the above? Something else? The Waratahs could potentially do any or all or none of it on a given day.
With luck, last week is the beginning of a clear direction.