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Opinion

Tahs can’t afford another Newcastle stumble

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Expert
6th February, 2020
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They blew it at Brookvale and had a nightmare at Newcastle, so there’s no more room for slip-ups if the Waratahs want to be taken seriously this season.

The Tahs face the Blues in their Round 2 Super Rugby match tomorrow night as they seek to rack up a first victory for Rob Penney as coach.

If there was a small feeling of relief for the Waratahs that they’re facing the weakest New Zealand side just a week after being battered by the strongest Kiwi team – the defending champion Crusaders – then it would’ve been sobering to reflect on how poor they were when they last took a home game out of Sydney.

At the end of March last year, the Waratahs capitulated to the Sunwolves at McDonald-Jones Stadium in Newcastle, the same venue where they take on the Blues this Saturday.

Mack Mason, in a rare start at flyhalf in place of Bernard Foley, copped plenty of the blame in the 31-29 defeat to a Sunwolves side that ended the season rooted to the bottom of the table with only two victories from 16 games.

Mason might want to forget about it, but Penney would’ve this week been reminded about the deflating loss and how important it is to rebound for Tahs fans in Newcastle who might be questioning the club’s spirit away from Sydney.

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The Tahs this year have an ideal chance to prove their resolve and tenacity outside of Sydney, with games in March against the Chiefs in Wollongong and the Bulls in Tamworth.

But first come the Blues, who it’s worth remembering beat the Waratahs 24-21 at Brookvale Oval in 2018 in a rare season win for the Auckland-based team then coached by Tana Umaga.

On Saturday night, the Waratahs will line up against a Blues side without rested recruit Beauden Barrett and one that was hit hard by injuries in their 37-29 opening-round loss to the Chiefs at Eden Park.

Winger Rieko Ioane is out with a hand injury, prop Alex Hodgman hurt his calf, hooker Ray Niuia did his knee and speedy flanker Tony Lamborn picked up an infection.

Along with that quartet, there’s another five squad members who are unavailable due to pre-season injuries and off-season surgery.

New signing Barrett won’t pull on the Blues jersey until mid-April as the All Blacks five-eighth takes more time off following the World Cup.

Powerful prop Karl Tu’inukuafe returns, and their pack boasts strong athleticism in the form of skipper lock Patrick Tuipulotu and impressive flanker Dalton Papalii.

TJ Faiane had some nice touches at inside centre against the Chiefs but they will miss Reiko Ioane, who scored two tries in the first half with his scything runs.

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There are few excuses for the Waratahs, who clawed their way back into the match in the second half before being outclassed in Nelson.

Ned Hanigan of the Waratahs looks on

Ned Hanigan of the Waratahs. (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Back-rower Jack Dempsey was rested last year in Newcastle, but returns to the starting side along with prop and Novocastrian Harry Johnson-Holmes, who missed last week due to flu.

Hooker Robbie Abel gives the pack a bit more muscle in place of Damien Fitzpatrick, who started most of last season with Tolu Latu unavailable for long periods.

Plenty of focus will be on five-eighth Will Harrison, who gets his second start after earning the No.10 jersey ahead of Mack Mason and Kurtley Beale.

Queensland Reds youngster and No.10 Isaac Lucas has been dropped to the bench for their clash with the Lions in Johannesburg, but Tahs coach Penney is taking a different approach with Harrison.

“I think it’s pretty obvious really, a young 10 needs time,” Penney said.

“He’s not going to learn sitting on the bench or not taking part in some way. He needs a meaningful opportunity, as does any young player coming in, particularly 10.”

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Waratahs coach Rob Penney is seen during the warm-up

Rob Penney. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Harrison’s progress will be intriguing to watch and he’s in a good spot to make a big impression given he will go toe-to-toe with Stephen Perofeta and not Beauden Barrett.

Hopefully Harrison will thrive on a ground in which Mason, after sitting behind Foley for a starting chance for two years, couldn’t steer the Tahs home last season with a series of late fumbles.

Mason had to wait for another two months to get back on the field with the Tahs. Penney has seen enough of Harrison already, though, and is keen to invest in his playmaker.

“It’s such a difficult and challenging position to play with all the decision making and chaos around you,” Penney said during the week.

“It’s a position more so than any other that players can grow given an opportunity.”