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Latu call-up a thumbs up but Tahs still lack pack power

Waratahs Super Rugby player Tolu Latu takes part in a training session in Sydney on Thursday, March 17, 2016. The Waratahs will host the Highlanders in the round 4 match on March 18. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Expert
26th July, 2018
48

Daryl Gibson likely got himself a contract extension last weekend, but if he can pull off a win in Johannesburg on Saturday the Waratahs coach should push for a sign-on bonus.

No matter which way you slice and dice it, the Tahs face a monumental task to upset the Lions in their Super Rugby semi-final at Ellis Park.

As impressive as NSW’s come-from-behind triumph over the Highlanders was, the Lions are well organised, high-paced and brutish. They’re ruthless at home. They know what it takes at this time of year. They’re aiming to qualify for their third straight Super Rugby grand final.

In their regular-round clash earlier this season, the Lions embarrassed the Tahs 29-0 in Sydney, a deflating defeat that marked the first time the Waratahs had been held scoreless in Super Rugby.

The area in which the Tahs look most inadequate is in the forwards, and such is the gulf in power between the two packs, it’s difficult to foresee how Gibson’s side will win anywhere near enough ball for Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau to spark attacking chances.

Latu’s inclusion at hooker – in place of Damien Fitzpatrick – is the right move given his strengths in scrummaging and his aggression at the breakdown (although his grass-cutter tackling technique in which he doesn’t always use his arms is a worry in these yellow-card heavy times).

It will be Latu’s first start this season – having come off the bench in the eight games he’s played in 2018 – but he’s a much better match-up on Lions beast Malcolm Marx.

The Springboks hooker was superb in last weekend’s victory over the Jaguares, winning five penalty turnovers.

And this is the major worry for the Waratahs: when the Lions got into their rhythm, they outmuscled a Jaguares pack including Agustin Creevy, Pablo Matera, Javier Ortega Desio and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro.

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The Argentinians boast a big pack with a solid mix of aggressive and mobile forwards, but even they were convincingly outpointed by the Lions at the breakdown and the set piece.

Marx typically leads the way, with lock Francois Mostert, captain and No.8 Warren Whiteley and backrower Kwagga Smith providing plenty of grunt work.

The Waratahs, in comparison, lack a big bruiser that can consistently rip in with leg-pumping runs and stinging hits like a Brodie Retallick, Amanaki Mafi or Jordan Taufua.

If the Waratahs pack was a boxer, they would be one that would often weigh in lighter than their opponent and lack a big strike weapon that could floor their rival. Hang tough and go the distance.

Michael Wells and Ned Hanigan aren’t backrowers that make many massive dents in other packs, although Will Miller is a typically tough No.7 that covers a lot of territory and can win a turnover.

A much more athletic looking Jed Holloway gives the Tahs a bit of punch in attack while his lock partner Rob Simmons is a hard worker but not a renowned hard hitter.

Sekope Kepu is once again in fine form and Tom Robertson is reliable at prop.

Latu is that one forward that can create a bit of chaos, and Gibson will look to him to set the tone physically for the Tahs.

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In fact, Latu also has a big chance to grab the Wallabies’ No.2 jersey for the first Bledisloe Cup clash next month and cap a huge turnaround after being overlooked by Gibson at the start of the year.

Who will he be competing against for a Test start? Tatafu Polota-Nau.

It’s incredible to think Latu was on the bench – behind Polota-Nau – for the Waratahs in the Super Rugby final against the Crusaders in 2014.

That title-winning side had a well-balanced pack, mixing the aggression and physicality of Jacques Potgieter, Wycliff Palu, Polota-Nau and Kepu with the hard-working Michael Hooper, Stephen Hoiles, Kane Douglas and Benn Robinson.

Will Skelton, with Latu, provided some sting off the bench.

There’s been a bit of talk that Gibson will be rewarded for the Tahs making it to the semis by being offered another deal beyond this season.

His first assignment might be to recruit some big, aggressive forwards. It’s an issue that a few other Australian Super Rugby teams face, as well as the Wallabies who have been outmuscled up front for years against the All Blacks, England and Ireland.

Size and aggression matter at this stage of the Super Rugby season. Waratahs winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, although he has his deficiencies, proves that size and power can be a precious commodity when you need to get moving forward.

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If the likes of Beale and Folau are expected to provide the points, then they need forwards with a bit of swagger that can provide the muscle.

Hopefully I’m made to look like a fool, but I fear that across the board – scrum, line-out, ruck and maul – the Tahs’ pack doesn’t have anywhere near the power to mix it with the Lions.