The Waratahs season has undoubtedly been a mediocre one. Certainly as a supporter sitting in the stands, the moments of brilliance have been fleeting and the victories few, and the immediate tendency is to write everyone off and say that we need to start again. That may not be entirely fair though, and if we look closely, there may be some gems among the rough.
If we were to work through the team from front to back we’d be forced to look at a much maligned front row, perhaps still unfairly paying for the sins of Twickenham a couple of years ago. Al Baxter has had opportunities on both sides of the scrum, and has perhaps improved a little over the last year, but it may be fair to say that he will never be the most dominant international prop. As a tighthead, he lacks the sheer genetic bulk and bull strength of the great cornerstones, and is not mobile enough around the paddock to make up for it, although he has occasionally been in the right place at the right time, has saved the Tah’s bacon by cleaning up, and is an honest footballer.
His partner in crime Benn Robinson has also been adequate without being brilliant and although he should be in the selection frame for the Wallabies, he perhaps hasn’t come on in the leaps and bounds expected of him this year. Their backup Matt Dunning has undergone the most startling transformation of all, and it is one which may not have paid the dividends he has hoped for. He has obviously worked hard for his increased bulk and while it may have improved his scrummaging to a degree, he seems to have lost his trademark mobility around the park, which could be an expensive trade off. Again, Dunning lacks the inborn bulk of the great prop, and when carrying the extra weight, seems to be a little off the pace, although his injuries have no doubt contributed.
At hooker, Adam Freier carried two millstones around his neck, one being the captaincy in a losing side, and the other being the need for go-forward which few others were willing to provide. Whenever he is playing in a dominant pack, Freier plays wider with greater mobility and has had exceptional games in the past playing this style, ironically a good 5 or 6 kilos lighter than he is now. Without the likes of Waugh and Vickerman to support him this year, he has been forced into the tight, where his short and newly bulky frame reduces him to a none-too-effective pick-and-go battering ram. Combined with his unfortunate foray into captaincy, you couldn’t blame Freier for being happy to see the end of the year. It would be great to see him come back next year a bit lighter and playing his traditional wider style, for this is where he is most effective.
The second row variously tried permutations of Mumm, Caldwell, Hand and Dennis because their two top ranked rowers in Vickerman and Kanaar were both injured for the season. The aggressive approach of both Kanaar and Vickerman was sorely missed and the Waratahs ability to confront opponents suffered simply through a lack of confidence of the younger players. Mumm, Caldwell and Hand’s year depends on your viewpoint. If you look at them in the context of the wider group of S14 locks, they have a long way to go. However, if you look at them as 3 second rowers who suddenly and unexpectedly shouldered the burden of an entire set piece, with minimal experience to guide them against technicians of the calibre of Victor Matfield et al, then their persistence and willingness to aim up in an often beaten team is to be admired. Mumm was finally given the latitude to show his skills against the Hurricanes in the final game, and his skills and pace should have selectors at state and national level pencilling his name in for future years, although probably as a blindside.
The backrow also wasn’t without it’s injury worries, and the gap left by Waugh and Lyons was a yawning one. Rocky Elsom again tried hard, perhaps a little too hard at times, for his hands were unreliable, although he covered an incredible amount of ground. As one of the few genuine Wallabies in the lineup, the pressure was on Elsom and it showed, although he was a justifiable winner of the Matthew Burke Cup. However his workrate, and ability to be physically confrontational will once again see him star at the World Cup particularly against his old sparring partners Collins and Burger.
Wycliffe Palu, for a player who went on last years Wallaby tour, did not step into the breach, and those who expected him to run roughshod over smaller opponents using his undoubted bulk and athleticism, were continually disappointed. The last time that Palu had a game where he made consistent line breaks was against second-tier Italy last year in the gold jersey, and the question remains about whether he is capable of fulfilling his potential. A comparison with Toutai Kefu shows that Palu is equal on bulk and athleticism, but miles behind on workrate and ability to seize the moment. If he is to become a true Wallaby incumbent, he needs to start delivering.
Beau Robinson had Super 14’s worst job in filling the shoes of one of the most consistent performers in rugby in Phil Waugh, and this pressure plus his young age could excuse some of his shortcomings this year. However, the poise, maturity and hard edge to the Western Force’s David Pocock showed that youth doesn’t have to equal petulance. Playing on the ball, Robinson showed some potential, but his lack of concentration and tendency to be easily frustrated could make him a difficult teammate. Waugh’s presence in the final game in Wellington showed his immense value to the team, purely in terms of self belief and ability to confront and often dominate even the most physical opponent.
Halfbacks Sheehan and Valentine were subsequently on the back foot behind an often battling pack and could be excused a few lapses under pressure. Sheehan bullocks well, but passes poorly and a review of most of his matches would show an unpalatably high number of passes behind and above his stand-off. Valentine seemed content to act as distributor, and as a result often transferred pressure to the men outside him because he was rarely inclined to test the defence. The straight running and gambling instinct of Brumbies-bound Josh Holmes (albeit in one game) showed that even a backline with few stars can function adequately when given a good start. Valentine and Sheehan will be repreived though, and with work on their passing and given the freedom to run behind a stronger pack, may still prove effective link men in 2008. The non-selection of Holmes for the final game was as petty a selection as you are ever likely to see, and he deserved a chance to show his wares for the Test selectors.
As an 18 year old pitched into the cauldron of Super 14, Kurtley Beale occasionally performed feats of incredible derring-do and great skill, and showed that the hardness and confidence that comes with age and experience will benefit him enormously. After a number of weeks starting, he was worn down by defences and defending and the cracks started to appear, but he will be a better player in 2008 with a hard year of bitter experience under his belt. Make no mistake, he is the real deal, and will be in his prime at the RWC in 2011.
Sam Norton Knight steadied the ship when he replaced Beale and occasionally appears Larkham-esque with the ball in hand although he drifts a lot more than the great man, and backs himself less. The occasional brain snap shouldn’t consign him completely to the bin, since his passing is accurate and defence good enough. With some better service, and the inclination to set opposing defences a little more, he may still prove to be the man at 10 for the Waratahs.
Centre has continually been a difficulty and Harris and Jacobs didn’t seem to stand out often, although each had one quality game – Harris vs Crusaders and Jacobs against the Hurricanes. The Waratahs didn’t see former Test centre Morgan Turinui either, aside from his mystifying selection out of position against a rampant Bryan Habana, and Lote Tuqiri was disappointing in his forays at outside centre. Neither Harris nor Jacobs appear to have the ability to consistently spark an attack through either pace or footwork, and this combined with regular poor quality passing across the backline meant that the chances were few. Changes at 5/8 throughout the season must have been unsettling for them, and perhaps a more settled combination may emerge in 2008, particularly if the Waratahs management correct the odd decision to not appoint an attack coach this year.
Lachlan Turner is not yet a Wallaby, and his solo effort against the Crusaders won’t get him there on its own, but it certainly hasn’t hurt his claims. The other boost for Turner is his stark contrast with the incumbent Wallaby on the other wing, the enormously bulky and newly sluggish Lote Tuqiri. Turner has scored a couple of tries through sheer pace, whilst Tuqiri has had opportunities which he has been unable to convert, in a couple of cases being run down from behind and having had to offload to support. Being a winger is largely about being able to find a way to the line, and from a few years back when Tuqiri was undoubtedly one of the fastest and most skilful in the game, he has taken a few steps back down the ladder. He appears to be the latest victim of the Waratahs focus on bulk and excessive muscularity, which has undoubtedly slowed him down. Turner hopefully won’t be forced down this road.
Lastly, the fullback Peter Hewat. On the surface, Hewat has had another good year, particularly in an often beaten team, however some investigation of the tryline camera view of tries against the Waratahs this year shows the reason why Hewat will not be a Wallaby. Against the Brumbies and twice against the Crusaders, Hewat missed important tackles with efforts which could only be classed as feeble, slipping off the ball carrier with the most cursory of efforts. His kicking in general play, his support and counter attack was often good, and no-one disputes his ability to break the line, or to find the tryline in attack. But without being able to shut down an opposition attack, his claims to higher honours will founder.
Of course, the players are in many cases beholden to a strategy set out by the coaching staff, and as head coach Ewen McKenzie must take a share of the blame. Having as coach one of Australia’s greatest front rowers which would lead you to believe that if nothing else the Waratahs should (given their first pick from the largest province in the country) have a dominant set-piece. Despite the constant assurances that the stats say we compete well in both lineout and scrum, the reality is that the Waratahs have parity at best and rarely dominate. A harsh critic might accuse McKenzie of arrogance in going into 2007 without an attack coach, especially given the youth of the team at his disposal, but the reality could simply be that he rightly expected to have a number of senior players around to guide the team, and injury drastically altered that equation.
Perhaps the greater question being asked by the supporters is about talent identification. McKenzie rightly says that we can only retain so many, that we’re bound to lose some to opposing teams, and there is no question about that. However the loss of Josh Holmes to the Brumbies as the most obvious case, has supporters rightly asking questions. Less public but no less questionable an example was the loss of Tim McGann to Munster. McGann had a year of professional football training under his belt with the Tigers, was mature, hard and leading Easts to some resounding wins, and would have been an ideal backup to the injured Phil Waugh, far better than the immature and brittle Beau Robinson. A trawl around other Super 14 sides will find a number of should-have-been-Waratahs in starring roles.
Skills coaching seems to leave a lot to be desired – a recent conversation with a leading league coach on this issue had him saying that there is no-one in the Waratahs backs with the necessary skills to cut it in league, and they wouldn’t look at any of the Waratahs backs as potential converts. A damning assessment, and one at which the coaches must look carefully.
In all, a difficult year, and one which has forced some young players to grow up faster than they may have otherwise. 2008 will show whether this experience will benefit the Waratahs in the long run.