Waratahs combinations: the oxymoron that shouldn’t be
NSW Waratahs Tom Carter is tackled by the Queensland Reds Rob Simmons. AAP Image/Dean Lewins
It was interesting to hear returning Waratahs Captain Rocky Elsom speaking on Fox Sports’ The Rugby Club last Thursday night, discussing the difficulties that can arise from forced or unforced changes to the sides.
While Elsom was specifically talking about replacements for injured players, it also applies when ordinary form necessitates starting XV changes.
“It’s just about trying to build the combinations as quick as possible,” Elsom said.
The whole idea of “building the combinations” in week 12 of an 18+3 week tournament (less June Tests) seems more than a little bit strange.
“What on earth have you been building until now, then?” was the follow-up question Elsom was asked, via me to my telly.
With the Waratahs naming a team to the play the Bulls with something like seven personnel changes to the side that was towelled up in Canberra, and knowing how up-and-down the ‘Tahs backline has been in 2012, this notion of still needing to work on combinations in mid-May got me thinking.
Have the Waratahs run out the same starting backline this season?
Some hasty clicking through team sheets, followed by some copy-and-pasting into a spreadsheet over the weekend found that the answer is, surprisingly, yes.
In fact, since the first game of the year, they’ve run out the same backline the following week on five occasions.
All up, they’ve only tweaked the set-up five times as well, a lot less than I expected when I started the exercise.
It goes even further: from week five against the Sharks to week nine against the Rebels (and with a bye in the middle), the Waratahs’ backline remained untouched from 9 to 15. Of those four games, they won three of them, and one came with a four-try bonus point.
You’d like the think the combinations were starting to build themselves by now.
However, that Rebels game looks to have started the unravelling. An injury to Bernard Foley and Rob Horne’s suspension forced two personnel and two more positional changes for the Crusaders game.
And we all know that didn’t end well. Robbie Freuen had his annual Super Rugby field day – this time at Tom Carter’s expense – and though the scoreboard shows a close result, the Crusaders were never really headed.
Against the Brumbies and Bulls, Berrick Barnes has come back pretty close to top form, and played comfortably his best attacking games of the year. The most noticeable difference was that he played so much flatter than he had in previous rounds, and looked to get away from this perceived ‘kick first’ game that plenty of spectators and commentators alike assume is his natural game.
And it was great to see. I’ve long wondered if the ‘kick first’ game was actually a matter of Barnes playing on instruction. I wonder if what we’re seeing now is actually closer to Barnes’ natural game, and he certainly looks more dangerous when he looks to run first.
But against the Brumbies, the ‘Tahs backs outside of Barnes stood so deep in attack that they were practically on the athletics track next door. Despite having played at 12 to Barnes since late March, Carter played as if they’d never met before. And that then begs the question, how did they train that week? Is the Waratahs’ attack coach having trouble getting everyone’s attention in class?
Happily, the new centre pairing of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Horne did go flatter with Barnes against the Bulls, and their first try was a cracker. Ashley-Cooper ran a perfect out-in decoy line to draw in both Bulls centres, and Barnes found Horne in space and try line-bound from thirty-seven metres out.
But, like all too often when it comes to watching the Waratahs in attack, that was it. After highlighting an evident defensive frailty, the ‘Tahs didn’t run that play again all game.
It was a head-scratcher, to say the least. Barnes, Ashley-Cooper, and Horne seemed to have a decent combination between them, yet they barely spoke again for the match. Perhaps ‘Waratahs combinations’ is an oxymoron after all.
If there’s an antithesis to the continually misfiring Waratahs backline, it’s the Brumbies of the last month, and the Reds of consecutive Sunday afternoons.
Until the Wallaby-bound flyhalf went down, there’s little doubt Lealiifano-McCabe-Smith was the form Australian midfield combination. A finals drought that stretched back to 2005 looked to be coming to an end.
Similarly, Lucas-Harris-A.Fainga’a have helped right the wobbly ship that was HMAS Queensland. Fainga’a, especially, has been back for three-and-a-half minutes this season, but already he’s being spoken of in Wallaby terms again.
What both teams benefit from, however, is quality service from their scrumhalf. Nic White and Will Genia will more than likely be the guys to carry the scrumhalf duties for the Wallabies, and their respective teams are able to make the gain line so consistently in midfield because of the service they provide.
Genia, particularly, has really kicked on since being ‘Forced’ into a decision about his future.
Contrast that to the Waratahs, where another less-than-ideal game from their no.9 means they’re still not sure who their best scrumhalf is. It’s worth mulling on that for a minute: Sarel Pretorius has started five times, Brendan McKibbin has started six times, and neither has been able to make the starting jersey their own in 2012.
And when you add that variable to what’s (supposed to be) happening outside him as well, it’s well harsh that Berrick Barnes is often blamed for the Waratahs woes. On his current form, I shudder to think how the ‘Tahs would be going without him.
Every year is supposed to be the year for the Waratahs. But without any combinations in attack, the year seems as far away as ever.
Brett McKay is a former non-tackling scrumhalf and not-quite-1st Grade middle order stalwart. A rugby and cricket expert for The Roar since July 2009 (having joined in Sept 2008), Brett has written for Inside Rugby and Cricket Australia, and is also PLAY Canberra's rugby correspondent. He tweets from @BMcSport
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