Kurtley Beale is an earth-shattering loss for the Waratahs to overcome this Super Rugby season, and as a result all eyes will be on new fullback Adam Ashley-Cooper.
The Waratahs have gone to great lengths to deny Ashley-Cooper is replacing Beale, pointing out the versatile former Brumby is a Wallabies star in his own right.
This might be true, but the facts are Ashley-Cooper has plenty to prove at his new team in 2012.
Beale’s defection to Melbourne has robbed NSW of the best attacking player in Australian rugby and arguably the most lethal No.15 in the world.
No one expects Ashley-Cooper to play like Beale, but as the key signing at a well-equipped franchise starving for success, the 27-year-old needs immediate results.
New coach Michael Foley says Ashley-Cooper has embraced the challenge.
“I think it’s pretty natural for anybody joining a new team that they’re keen to earn their way,” Foley told AAP.
“He’s a world class 15.”
The ace up the sleeve for Foley and the Waratahs is five-eighth Berrick Barnes.
With Beale gone, there can be no doubt now that Barnes is the man in charge.
Only time will tell what physical shape he’s in after last year’s experiences with `footballer’s headache’.
But if his performance for Australia in the third-place play-off at the World Cup is any indication, Barnes is ready for a breakout year.
The No.10 has great polish and poise to his game and has future captain written all over him.
“There’s no reason for us to expect anything but Berrick at his best and that’s certainly what he’s aspiring to,” Foley said of Barnes who will skipper the Tahs in the early rounds while Rocky Elsom is recovering from a hamstring problem.
NSW have lost plenty of class and experience in the off-season, but in many ways they might be better for the freshen up.
Warhorses Phil Waugh and Al Baxter are gone, along with halfback Luke Burgess.
But Dan Vickerman will settle in for a full year after joining midway through last season, Elsom has returned to the edge of the scrum and South African Sarel Pretorius looks set to be a revelation at No.9.
The glass half full approach says the Waratahs have been a model of consistency over the past few years, but the hard reality is they’re perennial underachievers.
However, Foley believes the time he’s spent with his talented squad over recent seasons as their assistant means he’s well positioned to get NSW to rise to the next level and be title contenders.
At last year’s humbling `fans forum’, Waratahs supporters voiced their desire for the team to play a more attractive style of rugby.
Losing Beale will hardly help a team trying to forge a reputation as an attacking force, but Foley says he has a plan.
“The important thing for each and every one of our guys, particularly the new guys, is to play to their strengths and do the things they’re good at,” added Foley, who received a major setback in the trials with winger Lachie Turner ruled out for at least six months with a hamstring tear.
“It’s important to us that we’re effective on the field, and the things we do our fans need to be able to look at and be able to say they can make sense of it and they enjoyed watching us do it.”
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2011 – qualifying-finalists; 2010 – semi-finalists; 2009 – 5th
Coach: Michael Foley
Captain: Rocky Elsom
Gains: Rocky Elsom (Brumbies), Adam Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies), Sarel Pretorius (Cheetahs, SA), Grayson Hart (Southern Districts)
Losses: Phil Waugh (retired), Al Baxter (retired), Kurtley Beale (Melbourne), Luke Burgess (Toulouse), Soseni Anesi (NTT Communications, Japan), Ryan Cross (Perpignan), Ben Mowen (Brumbies), Josh Holmes (France), Cam Jowitt
One to watch: Berrick Barnes – With Kurtley Beale out of the picture, it’s up to the No.10 to take charge of the Waratahs attack.
Best team: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tom Kingston, Rob Horne, Tom Carter, Drew Mitchell, Berrick Barnes, Sarel Pretorius, Wycliff Palu, Chris Alcock, Rocky Elsom, Dan Vickerman, Sitaleki Timani, Benn Robinson, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Sekope Kepu. Interchange: Dean Mumm, Dave Dennis, Damien Fitzpatrick, Jeremy Tilse, Daniel Halangahu, Atieli Pakalani, Brendan McKibbin.
Predicted Australian conference finish: 2nd.
Betting: Sportingbet: $7.50 (to win comeptition)