The Waratahs will do well to fill Scully Park in Tamworth next month.
It’s three losses in a row for the Tahs to start season 2020 after Friday night’s 24-10 loss to the Rebels in Melbourne. Far too early to write off their finals hopes, but the outlook is far from rosy.
If the game broadly in Australia is going arduous and uncertain times, then the spotlight will be felt most intensely in Sydney over the next fortnight with the Waratahs having a bye in Round 4.
It’s going to be a long two weeks.
Having a game off might be the best thing for the Tahs as they attempt to find a way to stop the rot. High on the list will be whether Rob Penney persists with 20-year-old Will Harrison at No.10 or moves fullback Kurtley Beale – a veteran of 159 Super Rugby games – closer to the action.
The selection of the Junior Wallabies five-eighth, following Bernard Foley’s departure to Japan, brought a degree of optimism that he could bring a fresh spark to the backline. Harrison has brought some nice touches over three games but Matt Toomua’s smooth display at flyhalf for the Rebels was a reminder of the importance of a reliable and experienced playmaker.
The Waratahs certainly can’t be regarded as wet-trackers.
There was driving rain in Melbourne, just as Newcastle had been wet and windy a week earlier. It’s another reason why Harrison’s introduction to Super Rugby has been trickier than it should’ve been.
Despite the slippery conditions over the past fortnight, the Tahs’ ball control has been far too inferior to give them a decent chance of grinding out a win. They made a massive 19 unforced mistakes against Melbourne.
How thick is the gloom?
The latest defeat leaves the Waratahs with their worst start to a Super Rugby season in the competition’s history. There isn’t a long injury list. There are plenty of new faces to replace Foley, Nick Phipps, Sekope Kepu, Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Tolu Latu and Curtis Rona. But there’s also plenty of experience; among them Beale, Michael Hooper, Rob Simmons and Karmichael Hunt.
The post-World Cup movement of players meant that nearly every Super Rugby side across Australia, New Zealand and South Africa endured roster upheaval and have been forced to bring through a relatively fresh batch of personnel. So no excuse for the Tahs on that count.
A new coach deserves more time to infuse his strategies and attitude, but even Penney will be feeling a bit jittery about how to get the Waratahs out of their early-season hole.
At Tahs HQ, there will also be some anxiety over how to pump up interest for upcoming home games.
The loss to the Blues in Newcastle was witnessed by a crowd of 7491 – the lowest home crowd for the Waratahs in their 25-year history.
The Tahs next take on the Lions at Bankwest Stadium. In their first three games at the venue in Parramatta last year, the Waratahs lost to the Sharks, Jaguares and Brumbies. The new-look Lions are still a classy side, but not a standout drawcard for Sydneysiders, which should make it a hard match to promote.
In Round 6, the Tahs take a home game out of Sydney to Wollongong to host the Chiefs. The Warren Gatland-coached Chiefs are already humming and are rightly being talked up as title contenders.
The capacity of WIN Stadium is 23,000. Even though the Tahs get a bit of fresh air to promote the game because the NRL season is yet to start, it’s reasonable to predict that a half-full venue would be a solid ambition.
It’s then on to Canberra for Penney’s team where they will battle a Brumbies side that will likely still be on top of the Australian Conference.
Brumbies boss Phil Thomson this week bemoaned the fact that his team, on a ten-match winning streak at Canberra Stadium, still couldn’t attract a decent crowd.
After the opening two rounds, Canberra crowds have averaged just 7267 fans, which is down almost 15 per cent on their previous worst set in 2018 at 8391 per game.
That will come as a sobering reminder to Australia’s other Super Rugby franchises that even success on the field won’t translate into bums on seats. Put it down to the summer start to the season, the bushfire emergency, but predominantly the broad discontent with Australian rugby.
Why’s that? The Wallabies’ woes for the last two or three years that led to the World Cup flop. The messy Folau divorce. The broadcast deal negotiations, which have involved egos and angst.
It all means the Waratahs might struggle to get the 11,000 fans needed to fill Scully Park in Tamworth for their round-eight clash with the Bulls on March 21.
The upside of the rebuilding of Allianz Stadium in Sydney was the Tahs could take the game out of Sydney and spread the rugby gospel in places like Wollongong and Tamworth. It’s now shaping up
as a tough sell if the Tahs can’t turn it around and quickly.
If the losses mount and the dud crowds continue, the other tough sell is Rugby Australia’s broadcast package.