This won’t be the Year of the Waratah

Spiro Zavos Columnist

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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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.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    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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    The Crowd Says (119)

    • February 20th 2012 @ 7:27am
      flying hori said | February 20th 2012 @ 7:27am | ! Report

      The problem with the Tahs is that they play like they just need to turn up and the game is theirs, riddled with Rep players and talent more so then any other supa side but can’t get the results. What a waste

      • February 20th 2012 @ 12:27pm
        mania said | February 20th 2012 @ 12:27pm | ! Report

        yeah agree hori. tah’s have all the hype and no substance. nothing tells me they’ll be any different. they do the same thing every year and expect a different result. madness
        the players have a lot of talent but lack team work and team spirit. hope they have a nother open day for the tah’s supporters, last years one was the best entertainment from NSW in decades

    • February 20th 2012 @ 7:50am
      Darwin Stubby said | February 20th 2012 @ 7:50am | ! Report

      The conference system will be the tahs friend … As pointed out they have available depth that, along with the Reds, will mean they’ll dominate the weakest conference … Secure top spot in the Aust conference ( which I believe they will) gives them a winnable home semi …. Even better – if they roll through their their conference and win at home against all comers – a top 2 spot overall means a good chance of a final given the warped finals system

      As for the SS being a match for provincial rugby in the other countries – from what I’ve seen there is no way that rings true

      • February 20th 2012 @ 10:14am
        Rugbug said | February 20th 2012 @ 10:14am | ! Report

        DS I lost allrespect in this article when Spiro made this claim “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”
        He is dreaming if he thinks any club team in Sydney would challenge the top ITM and CC teams, I must say it did give me a good laugh for a Monday.
        I also agree that the relatively weak Australian conference will give the Tahs and the Reds a big boost again however the tahs have a slightly more favourable draw this year.

        This year is as good as any for the Tahs to make their mark on SR finally everything is in their favour draw wise, now it is just up to the team to man up and deliver on what their lineup suggests they can and has done for many years only to stumble at the final hurdle.
        The Tahs have a sweet draw in many ways with their four international away games against mid table to low table teams. Highlanders, Chiefs, Cheetahs and their toughest road match on paper aside from the Reds is against the Stormers in SA.
        Their inbound internationals will be against the Sharks, Crusaders and the Bulls plus what will undoubtedly in my opinion be the Wooden Spooners the Hurricanes.

        The Reds have it a little tougher this year the draw doing them little to no favours like last year, they will play the Sharks and Bulls in SA in consecutive weeks, they will also play the Blues and Crusaders in NZ on consecutive weeks the Reds also will miss playing easybeats Cheetahs and Hurricanes this year so their international schedule is much more daunting than last year.
        The Reds do have the luxury of having 19 current or former internationals in their ranks and this experience will be invaluable this year.

        I like Darwin am predicting the Tahs to finish top of the Australian conference and would not be surprised to see them top the overall table also.

        • February 20th 2012 @ 10:38am
          Will Sinclair said | February 20th 2012 @ 10:38am | ! Report

          “He is dreaming if he thinks any club team in Sydney would challenge the top ITM and CC teams, I must say it did give me a good laugh for a Monday.”

          I thought he was speaking historically?

          At least that’s how I read it.

          • February 20th 2012 @ 11:59am
            WahWah said | February 20th 2012 @ 11:59am | ! Report

            When was the last time a Sydney Club won the National Championship? Would have to be 3 or 4 years ago. I think Qld Uni, Brothers and Easts won the last three. All Brisbane teams from the Brisbane comp.

        • Columnist

          February 20th 2012 @ 12:39pm
          Spiro Zavos said | February 20th 2012 @ 12:39pm | ! Report

          Rugbug, read carefully what I wrote. The strong club competition ‘at its best, could rival the NZ and South African provincial teams.’ This was probably an understatement. I was at Coogee Oval when Randwick gave Buck Shelford’s All Blacks, a mighty side at the time, one helluva match. Shelford said afterwards that the All Blacks would NEVER play a Sydney club side again, so hard was the match. Not long after, I saw Randwick defeat Bath, with their star number 10 Stuart Barnes playing at his best.
          I agree with you on the easy draw the Waratahs have. It’s up to them to get the bonus points wins to convert this easy draw into a top of the conference position. They won’t do this with the ‘win ugly’ style. That is the point I am trying to make.

          • February 20th 2012 @ 3:32pm
            allblackfan said | February 20th 2012 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

            SZ, has ANY club side fielded a team like Randwick did that day? That Randwick side was a de facto Australian side

            • February 20th 2012 @ 7:14pm
              anopinion said | February 20th 2012 @ 7:14pm | ! Report

              Qld uni in the late 80s and Souths in the early 90s. Around the mid 90s Wests had a fearsome outfit. All from Brisbane and as good as any club side in the World.

              • February 20th 2012 @ 10:24pm
                allblackfan said | February 20th 2012 @ 10:24pm | ! Report

                I maybe wrong but I believe that out of that Randwick side’s starting XV, 14 were Wallabies or former Wallabies. Perhaps someone can clarify this

              • February 20th 2012 @ 11:32pm
                Johnno said | February 20th 2012 @ 11:32pm | ! Report

                Yes All black fan that Randwick team was packed with stars, names i can think off.

                Campo of course, Mark ella still played club rugby and maybe all the ella brothers, David Knox who was better than Micheal Lynagh everyone thought that and knew that,
                Simon Poidevin, Phil kearns, Ewan Link Mckenzie, maybe a young peter Jorgenson, Tim Kellaher, Warwick Waugh, so a great team no question.
                The Toulon side that SBW played in was good too, SBW, Johnny wilkinson,Carl Hayman, Byron kellaher, Geroge Gregan, Tana Umaga, Jerry collins, i not bad at all.

          • February 20th 2012 @ 7:04pm
            Darwin Stubbie said | February 20th 2012 @ 7:04pm | ! Report

            A one off match that the ABs won … Considering prior to SR the ABs populated their provinces I find it hard to imagine SS sides matching it with say Akld and Canterbury of the 80s, Manawatu or BoP of the 70s, Hawkes Bay in their prime, Northland with Goings … It is a stretch at best – but to be so definitive is pushing it

            • February 20th 2012 @ 11:25pm
              Johnno said | February 20th 2012 @ 11:25pm | ! Report

              That Auckland side of the mid 80’s 85-89 was amazing.
              Kirwan, Terry Wright, Grant Fox, Zinzan Brooke, Sean Fitzpatrick, Steve Mcdowell and the great Micheal jones just to name a few.

          • February 20th 2012 @ 7:04pm
            Rugbug said | February 20th 2012 @ 7:04pm | ! Report

            Spiro with your comment nowhere does your comment in any way suggest you were talking about a game way back when TV was still in Black and white. Your comment can actually be interpreted either way however in the context of the article and the fact that you were talking about the Tahs of today it is very easy to assume you were talking in a current tense.
            That being said as ABF has said above that team that played the ABs that day was hardly your “regular” Australian club team and very rarely if ever has an Australian side ever fielded a “Club” team of the same quality since.
            The fact that you infer that “at their best” they could rival teams from the Currie and ITM cups is pure fanciful at best.
            A one in a million team that played out of their skins way back yonder is hardly a solid base to make such a claim.

    • Roar Guru

      February 20th 2012 @ 7:59am
      Wally James said | February 20th 2012 @ 7:59am | ! Report

      At last a realistic view of the great pretenders. Well done Spiro.

      • February 20th 2012 @ 12:23pm
        mania said | February 20th 2012 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

        haha Wally. thought i was the only one that called the tah’s the great pretenders, though thats a bit of an insult to freddie fender and freddie mercury its still very apt.

    • February 20th 2012 @ 8:19am
      Chris said | February 20th 2012 @ 8:19am | ! Report

      And both Turner and Mitchell out injured for the bulk of the season won’t help.

    • February 20th 2012 @ 8:26am
      DCR said | February 20th 2012 @ 8:26am | ! Report

      It is that time of the year again when all Southern Hemisphere rugby nuts like crocodiles on an early spring morning come out into the light again glad the summer is nearly over blinking and wobbly, scratching their heads, last season a distant memory, stomachs hungry for the comp to begin, to taste victory, to dream, to salivate, to bury disappointment. Wonderful it is.
      The only question I have is which of Australia’s Super coaches took anything away from the RWC final. There was a team in that final that had lost two games, by many people’s reckoning were not even allowed to win (Ewen McKenzie, Spiro Zavos) based on the specious reasoning that if they did win it it was unfair and would confuse supporters or some pea brains who happened to be watching and didn’t understand the game, but somehow must be encouraged to follow it by the favourite winning, who were up against a great All Black side who had hardly lost a game in the last seven years, brilliantly coached, with only one injury, were playing at home and yet the French only lost by one point, by the width of an upright, without any favour from the ref. Were any of the Aussie Super coaches watching? Were they?
      How many times did the French kick the ball in that game? How many times? Were the Aussie Super coaches watching? Any of them? Did any learn the new way? The old fashioned unlimited possession game of rugby league in the fifties. Did any of them watch any old footage of the great St George side dominating the unlimited possession game? Did any of them learn a goddam thing from the unbelievable effort of the French in one hell of a performance against all the odds who nearly did the unimaginable and beat a very good ABs team in Auckland. If they didn’t sack the effing lot of them.
      Ah it is good to get that off my chest. The hibernation is over. Where’s the mouthguard, the tape, the hatred of the ref and the opposition, the lust for possession, for control, for submission, for the hard victories away, against the penalty count, against the best?

      • February 20th 2012 @ 8:32am
        JAJI said | February 20th 2012 @ 8:32am | ! Report

        100% correct DCR. Spiro Zavos will tell you a million times the Wobblies are ranked number 2 and always brings up “that great first half in the Brisbane Bledisloe Cup last year”

        Fact is the World Cup final was the first time I had seen the All Blacks almost lose on home turf in years, I think I have watched 20 games in a row of the Wobblies not even going close in matching them yet here we were the French given no hope by anybody being a kick away from winning…..

        • February 20th 2012 @ 1:54pm
          Stin said | February 20th 2012 @ 1:54pm | ! Report

          The French beat The All blacks at home a few years ago!

      • February 20th 2012 @ 8:32am
        thurl said | February 20th 2012 @ 8:32am | ! Report

        Actually, that French team reminded me alot of the Warratahs. Tons of possession, but little clue as to what to do with it. As long as the defending teams doesn’t infringe, there’s not much chance of conceeding points.

        • February 20th 2012 @ 9:22am
          formeropenside said | February 20th 2012 @ 9:22am | ! Report

          Nah, the French were just hard pricks not intimidated by the AB’s, and were willing and able to match them in off-ball play (thought tending to thuggery rather than mere cheating).

          • February 21st 2012 @ 9:28am
            Riccardo said | February 21st 2012 @ 9:28am | ! Report


      • February 20th 2012 @ 9:47am
        kiwidave said | February 20th 2012 @ 9:47am | ! Report

        “with only one injury”

        Are you joking?

    • February 20th 2012 @ 8:34am
      p.Tah said | February 20th 2012 @ 8:34am | ! Report

      Spiro, sadly I left the stadium on Friday night with similar thoughts. My only hope is that the Tahs were very rusty, play to the level of the opposition and many of the combinations were new. Hopefully they get it together slowly and build towards to the finals. Here’s hoping… it was only a trial game…

      For those interested, the curtain raiser was Sydney Uni vs. Samoa. All four teams (including the Tahs and Tonga) had a 1st XV and a 2nd XV plus reserves. In all there were 135 players running around on the evening (not all at the same time 🙂 ) At times it looked like an NFL match with 100 players on the side line either waiting or warming up.

      • February 20th 2012 @ 7:23pm
        anopinion said | February 20th 2012 @ 7:23pm | ! Report

        Sydney Uni beat the Samoans 35-12. Not bad for a club side

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