For those truly faithful Waratahs supporters, each season is a test of faith. This season however, seems different and yet all to familiar feel.
Throughout the various iterations of Super Rugby the Waratahs have always had squads stacked with Wallabies and each season would begin renewed optimism. Seasons would start with strong play and early wins only for the wheels to fall off as soon as they travelled to either New Zealand or the Republic.
We, the fans, would be left to spend the second half of the season lamenting yet another lost year. Some seasons were better, 2005 and 2008 the Tahs made the finals only to be entirely outclassed by the Crusaders.
Other times the Tahs made the playoffs, in 2002, 2006, 2010, 2011, they again were no match for superior opposition. These seasons only served to ingrain the heightened and deluded sense of optimism. In 2014, after 19 seasons of Super Rugby, the team finally lived up to its potential, playing some of the best and most entertaining rugby seen in the competition, and was rewarded with its first championship.
Maybe it’s a combination of the championship hangover wearing off (a three-year hangover seems fair considering fans endured 19 years of heartache first) and the emotional breakthrough that a championship brings but 2018 was the first year I entered the season without optimism. It is the first year I couldn’t talk myself into the team.
Sure the Waratahs backline looked decent on paper. Jake Gordon was in fine form and Nick Phipps would be back soon enough, we know the quality of Bernie Foley and Kurtley Beale (we also know their limitations). Israel Folau is world class.
Beyond this however there were a lot of unknowns, Curtis Rona has been a pleasant surprise since moving to 13 and Taquele Naiyaravoro has elevated his running game to obscene highs, although his defence and decision making still remains poor, and Alex Newsome is proving to be a valuable addition.
It is not good however to see limited development from Andrew Kellaway, who had a reasonably impressive season in 2017, and Irae Simone.
The biggest issues come when you look at the forward pack. Captain Michael Hooper is as consistently excellent and impactful as any player in Super Rugby.
Sekope Kepu is a Test player, but beyond those two talent is short. Ned Hanigan is a Wallaby, but struggled with the physicality of Test rugby all year and his readiness for that level was reasonably questioned.
The acquisitions of Tom Staniforth and Rob Simmons were something of a cruel joke. Both have tormented their former teams with their limited physicality and ball-carrying abilities. That is not to say they do not hold value, however when considering the rest of the Waratahs squad and their desperate need for those two attributes it hurt.
The injury to Jack Dempsey has hurt as he has shown great potential, especially at Test level last year. Similarly, Jed Holloway have shown great promise but is yet to establish himself as a genuine Super Rugby player.
Yet despite potentially their weakest team on paper in club history, after seven games the Waratahs have five wins. Their only loss came to the much improved Jaguares in Argentina on the second leg of a long trip. T
hey also registered a draw with the Sharks in South Africa. But it was the nature of these wins that was uncharacteristic.
The Waratahs played a familiar brand of rugby, highlighted by enterprise, excitement and very poor execution. Time and again they overplayed their hand forcing less than 50/50 offloads and turning the ball over rather than consolidating possession and territory and building pressure.
Endless knock ons in the opponents 22 and grossly ineffective clean out work frequently spoiled promising attacking raids. And obligatory ad lib chip and chase efforts from Beale had supporters pulling their hair out.
However despite their best efforts to shoot themselves in the foot, the Waratahs found themselves winning games. For the first time in franchise history things seemed to break the Tahs way. In their first round match the Waratahs and Stormers were evenly matched in their incompetence, tied at 27 a piece.
It was only fitting the game ended after a terrible Stormers lineout over throw ended in Ned Hanigan crashing over in the corner. The second match with the Sharks followed a remarkably similar script only this time the Tahs stole a draw from the jaws of defeat. The following week the Tahs were blown off the park by the Jaguares. This was incorrectly put down to travel, and a late revival once the Argentinians had put the game away disguised the real issues here.
The following four matches only served to heightened the false sense of security as the Tahs beat up on their Australian Conference rivals. The same issues still plagued the Waratahs, however their opponents suffer from equally crippling fundamental flaws.
Through this run the issues were plainly obvious and only the most faithful of Waratahs supporters would believe the winning would continue.
The Round 10 match against the Lions was Judgment day for the Waratahs, and it was not pretty. The Waratahs were exposed for the team that they obviously are.
For the first 40 minutes the Lions were well below their incredibly high standard, yet the Tahs could not capitalise. It was the same story as it has been for a few years now.
The execution was inexcusably low, with poor skills and poor decision making seeing no less than five genuine try scoring chances go begging. The most frustrating part of the whole ordeal was the fact that simple and disciplined football would have got the job done and potentially put the game out of reach before half time.
Instead the Lions went into the break leading 7-0 after they basically stumbled over the line for the only score of the first half. The Lions finally got themselves together for the second half and as soon as the Tahs were up against top tier opposition they were entirely outclassed. It was only minutes into the second period that it was clear this game was over.
The next four weeks will define this Waratahs season, as they face four straight New Zealand Teams. There is no hiding for the Tahs now. You do not beat the the teams from across the ditch without playing exemplary rugby.
The current brand simply won’t do. Should they win all or even some of these games there would be genuine hope for this season. However, even with Folau making his return it is more likely than not the Tahs lose all four of these fixtures. The standard of play from the team this year simply has not been good enough.
If this season continues to script, the Tahs will snag a win or two on the back on some uncharacteristic luck, or they will lose all four. Either way the Tahs will, ironically, still be a great chance at securing the guaranteed finals sport for finishing on top of the Australian Conference.
The Waratahs face all four conference rivals to finish off the season and sweeping those contests should see them land on top of the conference standings. The prize, a chance for us supporters to get our hopes up, only to be crushed at home by the third best New Zealand team, as per the program.