With a host of players leaving the club at the end of 2019, the Waratahs head into this Super Rugby season as (very) unknown quantity.
Add in a change of head coach and captain, and the Tahs have gone through more off-season fluctuation than just about any other side. Hell, CEO Andrew Hore even headed for the exit. They’ll hope the off-field developments lead to a similar transformation of their on-field results.
World Cups always lead to a player exodus, but even then the Waratahs have lost an awful lot of experience.
Gone are Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Curtis Rona and Adam Ashley-Cooper. Most of them have trailed off in recent years, but it’s still a lot to lose. Throw in Israel Folau, and 469 Wallabies caps have left New South Wales, as well as talented young back-rower Will Miller.
Some veteran heads remain, including Michael Hooper, Rob Simmons and Kurtley Beale. Hooper stepped away as skipper just last week, with the other two taking up the captaincy and vice-captaincy respectively.
Some of the new faces, led by Jack Maddocks and Tetera Faulkner, have experience at Super Rugby level. But for the most part, the Tahs have leant on youth to fill out their squad; Carlo Tizzano, Michael McDonald, Joey Walton and Mark Nawaqanitawase were all Junior Wallabies last year.
The side’s other notable signing, Tepai Moeroa, has hopped codes from the Parramatta Eels.
Robbie Abel, Angus Bell, Jack Dempsey, Damien Fitzpatrick, Tetera Faulkner, Charlie Gamble, Ned Hanigan, Will Harris, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Tom Horton, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Ryan McCauley, Rory O’Connor, Tom Robertson, Rob Simmons, Hugh Sinclair, Tom Staniforth, Lachie Swinton, Pat Tafa, Chris Talakai, Carlo Tizzano, Andrew Tuala,
Kurtley Beale, Cam Clark, Lalakai Foketi, Jake Gordon, Will Harrison, Karmichael Hunt, Siosifa Lisala, Jack Maddocks, Mack Mason, Michael McDonald, Tepai Moeroa, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Alex Newsome, James Ramm, Mitch Short, Joey Walton
Captain: Rob Simmons
Coach: Rob Penney
Ins: Robbie Abel, Tetera Faulkner, Charlie Gamble, Tom Horton, Siosifa Lisala, Jack Maddocks, Michael McDonald, Tepai Moeroa, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Carlo Tizzano, Joey Walton, Rob Penney (coach)
Outs: Adam Ashley-Cooper, Israel Folau, John Folau, Bernard Foley, Sekope Kepu, Tolu Latu, Will Miller, Nick Phipps, Curtis Rona, Le Roux Roets, Sham Vui, Michael Wells, Daryl Gibson (coach)
The XV Rob Penney rolls out for Round 1 this week is going to be markedly different from the corresponding fixture last year. A fresh approach can only help the side, which has been stuck in something of a rut for the past few seasons.
Nick Phipps’ exit will finally give Jake Gordon a full season to make the no.9 jersey his own. Gordon threatened in his early years with New South Wales to blossom into a regular Wallabies squad member without ever breaking through, and the lack of a consistent Super Rugby starting role hasn’t helped.
The 26-year-old made a team-high 16 appearances last year but still didn’t have as many minutes on the field than the likes of Curtis Rona, Karmichael Hunt and Cam Clarke, all of whom played fewer games.
Set to play a far more significant role this year, expect him to consistently test defences with his running game from the base of the ruck.
With Wallabies Michael Hooper and Jack Dempsey in the back row, the Waratahs should have a strong breakdown presence. Rob Simmons has his doubters but has been a consistent performer since moving south from the Reds, and Harry Johnson-Holmes is a promising young prop. There should be the bones of a decent pack there.
Much like with the Reds yesterday, the Waratahs’ young players provide reason for optimism. Will Harrison has all the tools to be an excellent 10, Will Harris is a giant of a teenager with better skills than his size should allow, and Mark Nawaqanitawase was mightily impressive at fullback in the trial against the Highlanders. All could be on the cusp of breakout seasons.
While a new-look team provides an opportunity for improvement, the Waratahs’ departures have left them skinny in some key positions. Flyhalf is an area of concern for most Australian sides, but none more so than the Tahs.
Bernard Foley was a wonderful servant of New South Wales, but as he dropped off last year, a trick was baldy missed by failing to properly blood a replacement. Mack Mason, who looked to have injured his groin in Friday night’s trial against the Reds, played just 146 total minutes of Super Rugby in 2019 – although failed to impress in either of his starts.
Will Harrison, based on his good pre-season form, should be the long-term option at 10. But for all his promise, he’s raw and untested.
Even more concerning is the amount of noise about Kurtley Beale playing at 10. There’s no upside to making Beale, who would add a goalkicking headache for the side, the main playmaker instead of Mason or Harrison.
The two youngsters might play a stinker every now and then, but they’ll improve. There’s no such silver lining for Beale.
Just as uncertainty surrounds flyhalf, so too is the centre pairing up in the air. Unlike 10, though, this is nothing new – 12 and 13 were something of a carousel last year with Beale, Karmichael Hunt and Adam Ashley-Cooper all rotating through the midfield.
Hunt was a solid performer before injury ended his 2019 season and should be given a run there this year. A partnership with league convert Tepai Moeroa is perhaps most likely, although the 24-year-old is going to need time to reacclimatize himself with the 15-man game. Beale could also spend some time there, too.
Whatever duo Penney goes with, a more settled combination would give the Waratahs some much-needed midfield consistency.
A quick word on the forwards: while the back five look solid enough, Sekope Kepu’s departure leaves the front row looking shaky, particularly in the scrum. Add in a poor performance from most of the pack against Queensland, and you can expect to see opposition sides target NSW up front.
Despite his bemusingly large cohort of detractors, Michael Hooper is New South Wales’ best player by some margin. But it’s newly appointed vice-captain Kurtley Beale who may have the biggest impact on the side’s fortunes this year given the large role he’s set to play – and the vast difference between his best and worst form.
His performances fluctuated throughout 2019 with both the Waratahs and Wallabies. At his best, he remains a dangerous playmaker capable of unlocking opposition defences. When he’s off his game, he meanders sideways, kicks at the wrong time and is exposed defensively.
Penney said late last year he’ll be relying “heaps” on Hooper and Beale. He cannot afford to have that latter version of the 31-year-old.
He might now be better suited to a bench utility role with the odd start at fullback, but if Beale is given the significant role – as you’d expect for a vice-captain – and manages to find his best form, he can be a valuable contributor on the team, handling playmaking responsibilities as Harrison and Mason develop throughout the season.
Before the first trial against the Highlanders two Fridays ago, Mark Nawaqanitawase seemed set for a largely peripheral role this year; a few appearances off the bench here and there, maybe one or two starts on the wing.
One dominant performance at fullback later, and Penney put him in contention for a Round 1 start against the defending champion Crusaders.
The 19-year-old’s work under the high ball and ability to take the line on and offload in contact were impressive. He’s still not likely to wear the no.15 ahead of new signing Jack Maddocks or Beale, nor is a Round 1 debut certain (which will at least give commentators a bit of time to learn to pronounce his name – far as I can tell, it’s nah-WUNG-gah-NEE-tah-WAH-zeh, for those playing at home).
The Waratahs’ run-on wingers are less concrete, though. After playing there for the Junior Wallabies last year, expect a start or several there for Nawaqanitawase this season.
There are going to be growing pains for the Waratahs this year. Michael Hooper’s class and the experience of Simmons, Hunt and Beale might lead to some gutsy, ground-out victories, and the younger members of the side will provide more reason for long-term optimism than what’s been the case in recent seasons.
A finals berth, though, will be beyond their reach.
Prediction: Third in the Australian conference