Daryl Gibson’s brutally honest intent to delay the final game for his Wallabies contingent has sparked an interesting little situation.
At the same time it proves that unless you put everything down in explicit detail, professional coaches will inevitably find an advantage in the wording.
After the Waratahs removed another couple of bearers from the increasingly shaky foundation of the Rebels’ season on Friday night, Gibson was matter of fact when asked about the conundrum he faced.
That with two games to go, he still needs to sit Kurtley Beale, Michael Hooper, Sekope Kepu, Bernard Foley, and Rob Simmons out of one more Super Rugby regular season game, as per the Wallabies’ pre-World Cup resting program that the Super Rugby sides agreed to before the start of the season.
“I decided about six or seven weeks ago that given where we were in the competition, we were playing a short strategy in the fact that we needed to win games to stay alive,” Gibson said in Melbourne.
“So it was very clear: either continue to try and rest people at different times, or just go and win games.”
Gibson even suggested the Australian derbies were too important to rest players from, with the best way to measure potential and prospective Wallabies being to use the derbies as trial games, effectively.
“I look at these games and I want to give the Australian players the chance to play against their peers – that’s important as there’s a lot at stake including competition points,” he rationalised.
“It’s an opportunity for them to go against their rivals.
It’s actually hard to argue his point. Derbies at this later stage of the season are going to have more at stake in them then the equivalent games played in February and March.
And from the perspective that any points earned in a derby game are points taken away from conference rivals, there’s probably something to be said that Australian derby games should have been off limits from the start.
Having beaten the Rebels, the Waratahs go into this Saturday’s game with the Brumbies just three points outside the bottom wildcard spot, and within one win of the Sharks, Bulls, and Rebels inside the eight – all of them facing games away from home in which they might be doing well to emerge with competition points.
Hence, Gibson continues to run with his ‘all in’ mentality, picking the strongest side he possibly can for as long as he possibly can.
Of course, the issue becomes apparent should the Waratahs beat the Brumbies and find themselves in one of the wildcard positions heading into the final round before the playoffs.
In the final round, the Waratahs face the Highlanders not under the roof in Dunedin, but under the elements at Rugby Park in Invercargill. Needing to win hold onto a possible place in the finals. On the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand. In the middle of June.
It will be some task even with the five Wallabies regulars, never mind attempting it while relying heavily on young players with only a few caps to their name.
The way I see it, there’s three ways of looking at this situation the Waratahs have created for themselves.
The first way is the most obvious way: the Waratahs have absolutely botched this.
They knew before the season started that they needed to rest players, and they would even have known that they probably had the most players impacted by the Wallabies ‘thou shalt not play all games’ philosophy.
Furthermore, the Waratahs had byes early; the first in Round 3, and their second in Round 9. So there’s even an argument to be made that some strategic resting in the first half of the season could have had the Wallabies contingent within the Waratahs heading into Round 10 having played just six games; it would’ve freshened them up for the run to the playoffs, and an easier start to the Super Rugby season would bring benefits later in the year.
With so many players needing to sit out games, the ‘Tahs more than anyone needed to be proactive, and they haven’t done that. Finals might have seemed out of reach even only a month ago, but if they now cost themselves that unlikely finals berth because they’ve buggered this up… well, that’s the kind of result and the kind of management that sees boardrooms offering coaches their “full support”.
The second way is what Gibson has admitted to: they’ve taken a calculated risk.
After they came back from Africa, the Waratahs had won only four games and sat 13th overall on 22 points. But ahead of them were games against the Reds, Jaguares, Rebels and Brumbies, and Highlanders to come – two of them at home, but four of them in Australia, where they’ve won nine from eleven since the start of last season.
They calculated that eight wins would probably be enough to qualify for the finals, they probably knew that they’d still need some luck go their way, but could see at least four wins from those last five games. So they decided to go ‘all in’ until they definitely can’t make the playoffs.
They now have six wins, but are within reach of the wildcard places with two games to play. They’ve only won two of their last three – they’ll need to win both remaining games to get to eight wins – but things have gone their way with other results. They might even be closer than anticipated by the end of Round 16.
The only issue being that things haven’t gone their way until last week. Meaning they still need to win everything from here and they still need to rest players. And unfortunately, that now looks a little bit like the risk times reward calculation has come up with a answer that says, ‘you’ve botched this’.
What’s the other way of looking at it?
Well, like the curious and naughty nine-year-old boy standing among a smouldering ruin trying to argue “you never said anything about flame-throwers”, when warned not to play with matches, the Wallabies resting requirements only came with the need to rest X number of players from a designated number of games.
When and how the four coaches implemented the plan was entirely up to them. The Wallabies management doesn’t care when the Waratahs don’t sit out their games, only that they do sit them out as agreed.
So Daryl Gibson leaving it until Round 17 or Round 18 is all on him. But it’s enough for other coaches to be watching team lists pretty closely over the next fortnight.
“All I know is we sat in a room and made an agreement about something, so I’d presume that they’re going to stick to that,” Rebels coach Dave Wessels said, when asked if he had any concerns the Waratahs might be about to embark in some ‘silly buggers’.
“We certainly will do our part,” he added, almost certainly on behalf of the Reds’ Brad Thorn and Brumbies’ coach Dan McKellar; the three of them having already fulfilled their part of the resting arrangement.
And so it would be fascinating to see what – if any – punishment is handed out to Gibson and the Waratahs if they straight out ignore the agreement now and just play the five players in the last two games.
Even more so if the Waratahs won both games and qualified for the finals. Would Rugby Australia really force an Australian team to pick a weakened team for a finals campaign?
It will be genuinely intriguing, and I reckon there’s a bit of ‘watch this space’ about Waratahs team sheets now.
And maybe, with the popcorn well within reach…