Did you hear the one about the rugby team who let veteran players go, spent well underneath the salary cap, and then sacked their coach when they didn’t win any games?
If that was a hypothetical scenario, it would be laughed off as unrealistic. Yet it is exactly what has happened at the Waratahs this season.
It’s still hard to fathom how anyone could look at the Tahs at the moment and come to the conclusion that Rob Penney was the problem.
In each of his seasons in charge, the Kiwi was put in the unenviable position of leading the roster hit hardest by player departures out of all the Australian sides.
The post-World Cup exodus ahead of 2020 saw the likes of Tolu Latu, Sekope Kepu and Bernard Foley leave, before Kurtley Beale followed before the season restart.
This year, Penney was deprived of the services of Michael Hooper, Rob Simmons, Ned Hannigan and Karmichael Hunt, none of whom were replaced by a player of equivalent skill as a sixth of the salary cap went unspent. Injuries to captain and scrumhalf Jake Gordon, Wallabies prop Angus Bell and promising centre Joey Walton only exacerbated the squad’s lack of depth.
Waratahs CEO Paul Doorn said on Sunday that “the on-field performances this season have not met expectations and we feel that, in the best interests of the Waratahs, now is the time to make a change”.
What exactly could those expectations have been? If they involved winning many Super Rugby AU fixtures, it would show only a complete and utter misunderstanding from the NSW Rugby board of what their squad was capable of.
The notion that this decision is in the Waratahs’ best interests is just as baffling. Sacking Penney has sparked anger, disappointment and fury from NSW fans, and the calls for change at board level since Sunday tell the story of a governing body out of touch with its constituents.
That’s never ideal, but it’s particularly problematic when you consider rugby is enjoying an increase in mainstream coverage due to the new Nine-Stan broadcast deal.
It’s also sure to make some coaches think twice about signing on to lead the Tahs. Penney was roughly halfway through his three-year term – a half which had included the turmoil of a global pandemic, as well as the aforementioned roster mismanagement. And despite that, he did get his young charges exceeding any reasonable on-field expectations last year.
If the NSW Rugby board is content to jettison a coach like that, who has done as well as could be hoped in difficult circumstances, why would any potential replacement feel confident in the security of their contract?
And yes, it’s the Waratahs so enough coaches will stick their hand up to take the gig – a number already have. But is it any coincidence that Simon Cron – someone who many would have liked to see take over in 2022 – has already recused himself from the race?
None of this qualifies as earth-shattering insight – just about all the discussion regarding Penney’s dismissal has been furious agreement about what a colossal misstep it was.
Now attention turns to the future, and particularly the NSW Rugby AGM which is scheduled for May. It’s been reported that chairman Roger Davis, who has been in his role since 2012, is planning to stand down, and his departure would be the bare minimum to keep fans anywhere close to the on-side line if current sentiment is any guide.
As for the team itself, don’t expect the change of coach to inspire a change of results. Because Rob Penney was not the problem with the Waratahs.