This won’t be the Year of the Waratah

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Will the NSW Waratahs beat Spiro's prediction for 2012? (Image: NSW Waratahs)

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Around this time every year, I make a fearless prediction that this year, this year will be the Year of the Waratahs.

The reason why I’ve made these predictions is that most years, the Waratahs have the cattle. Their squad is usually loaded with Wallabies, usually leading Wallabies.

And there is a reservoir of rugby talent to replenish the side if necessary. Over 40 percent of all the rugby players in Australia are in New South Wales. The best rugby club competition in Australia is in Sydney.

The city, too, has St Joseph’s College, at Hunters Hill, the famed nursery of rugby stars. Until recently, Joeys had provided 15 per cent of all Wallabies.

So this combination of numbers of players, a strong club competition which at its best could rival the New Zealand or South African provincial teams, and a nursery of brilliantly-coached players, created a Waratahs side that since the 1880s has always been regarded in world rugby as one of the stand-out teams.

There was, too, the famed Waratahs style of running the ball with creative and skilful backs and fast forwards that powered the side to victories against the All Blacks, the Springboks, and a famous annihilation of Wales.

But under successive coaches in the Super Rugby tournament, starting with the ill-fated and overly ambitious Matt Williams, have coached the flair and danger out of the Waratahs.

Even Ewen McKenzie, now flourishing with the red-hot Reds, was one of the guilty men. The team reached its nadir as an entertaining and dangerous finals side last season with coach Chris Hickey’s mantra that the aim of the side was to “win ugly.”

This mantra is a total violation of the real Waratahs spirit created by the famous side that toured the UK in the late 1920s, creating a brand of running, fast, attractive, skilful and successful rugby that became the hallmark of Waratah teams.

Before professionalism, when you thought of the Waratahs you thought of Trevor Allen, Arthur Windon (a loose forward as fast as Hennie Muller, ‘the greyhound of the veldt’), and Ken Catchpole; or in more recent times, Mark Ella, Nick Farr-Jones, Simon Poidevoin, and the incomparable David Campese.

On Friday night I went down to the Sydney Football Stadium to see the 2012 Waratahs play their final pre-season match against a team of Tongans who looked as if they had never been coached in even the rudimentary principles of the game.

The only player on the field for the Waratahs who showed any of the Waratahs’ traditional flair was the South African halfback, Sarel Pretorius.

He was terrific. He passed crisply, which is the essential skill for any halfback. His running from loose play and set play was dynamic. He seems to be very strong and ultra-fast.

He also played like a fourth loose forward and he seemed to create more havoc among the Tongan halves than the designated loose forward trio.

The first play of the match saw Berrick Barnes, after several phases of players taking the ball up and creating an overlap on a big blindside, put through a grubber kick which bounced neatly into the hands of a Tongan defender on his 10m mark.

Any Super Rugby side would then have launched a strong attack from this position. The Tongans, clueless from start to finish, returned the ball back with an inept high ball and no chase.

The point here is that Barnes had seemingly run out of options for running the ball in the first minute of play. What have Scott Bowen and Alan Gaffney, the backs and skills coaches, being doing with the players for the last six months?

The Waratahs forced a number of 5m lineouts and only once took the ball from the top and moved it along the backline. This move resulted in an easy try to Rob Horne. On the other occasions, the Waratahs tried to out-muscle their out-of-condition opposition.

As I watched all this I had a nagging thought that this plodding, bully-boy, over-kicking and over-muscular style of play was somehow very familiar.

And then the penny dropped. The Waratahs were playing like England!

I don’t think that a Waratahs side that plays like England, even if it can reach the levels of intimidation and ruthlessness the best England sides have, can be a contender for the Super Rugby title in 2012.

This is not so say that this style can’t be effective, from time to time. The Waratahs monstered the Reds in Sydney last season. But McKenzie’s reaction to this defeat is interesting.

He says he made the mistake of trying to match the Waratahs in the forwards, giant for giant. He played James Horwill, a second-rower who is not noted for his mobility on long carries, on the side of the scrum. The slow, over-weight Reds pack was smashed by the slow but stronger Waratahs pack.

On Saturday night, McKenzie has foreshadowed that he is likely to play to fast flankers, Liam Gill and Beau Robinson, and to hell with trying to match the Waratahs kilo for kilo. The Reds will try to run the bigger Waratahs pack off its feet.

The other consideration about the ‘win ugly’ style is that it tends not to yield a large number of bonus points. Admittedly, the Waratahs led the tournament in tries in the pool rounds. But many of these tries came from matches where the opposition was blown away.

The point here is that the Super Rugby competition rewards the sides that score bonus points. And this has been a problem for the Waratahs in recent years.

This year, too, the Waratahs will be without one of the three best counter-attacking backs right now in Australian rugby, Kurtley Beale. Quade Cooper and James O’Connor are the other two.

Why did Beale leave the Waratahs? It’s hard to believe that he was offered more money. Was it because he had become tired of having to try to play with flair when the game plan was based on taking as much flair and unpredictability out of the Waratah game as possible?

I note that the bookies who put their money where their mouths are have listed the odds for Super Rugby 2012 as follows. The Crusaders are $4, Blues $5.50 (I find this strange), Reds $6, and Waratahs $7.50 (which is encouraging I guess for them).

The Stormers are $9, Bulls $15, Sharks $15, meaning bookies are basically writing off the South African sides.

The Chiefs are $17 (and my dark horse outsider pick), Highlanders $17, Rebels $34, Hurricanes $41, Lions $61, Brumbies $67 (hardly a vote of confidence in Jake White and surely too pessimistic), Cheetahs $67, Western Force $67.

I am the only Eastern Suburbs Sydney Greek I know who doesn’t gamble. Readers of The Roar will know, too, that on the tipping competition I generally come in around the top third, good but not great. So, in a sense, I hope that my feelings about the Waratahs are out of kilter with what will really happen.

I hope I am wrong, but somehow, I just don’t feel that this is going to be The Year of the Waratah.

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Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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