A week is a long time in rugby.
This time last week I started to draft an outline of the key things I thought NSWRU and the Waratahs needed to do or address to turn things around.
Sacking head coach Rob Penney wasn’t on the list. In fact number one was ‘doing the right things for the right reasons’.
‘Pick and stick’ was also there, urging the board to keep the faith with Penney, as he was doing with his young team. After all, back in 2019 the board had chosen Penney over other well-credentialed candidates, who apparently included Shute Shield club messiah Darren Coleman. Presumably there were reasons for this, such as Penney’s experience and success with developing young teams.
Now Penney is gone, hopefully at some point to a position where he is better supported in his endeavours than he was in NSW. His developing Waratahs and the assistant coaches will go forward as best they can. While Penney’s exit would have shaken the group, hopefully they will do their former mentor proud for the remainder of 2021 and continue to display signs of the improvement, resilience and character that the board failed to see.
The real challenge for the organisation is higher up, and with media reports indicating that NSWRU chairman Roger Davis will be stepping down in May, there’s a chink of light in the darkness and hope for some level of accountability and renewal.
As Roarers have pointed out, some current board members wouldn’t necessarily see the Waratahs as a top priority. After all, the board’s remit is broader than the state’s flagship team. But the Waratahs’ success is to some extent an indication of the health of rugby in NSW. The team must be a priority, and going forward the board must ensure it has the capabilities to make better decisions in support of the Waratahs.
With hopefully a refreshed board in place over the next few months, what needs to happen to set the Waratahs on their new course?
1. Everyone aligned
Team spirit and a shared sense of purpose are as important off the field as on. At the Waratahs we’re seeing the results of a misaligned organisation, with one party’s financial imperative inhibiting another’s ability to build a competitive, high-performing team. Among other inefficiencies, misalignment sets people at cross-purposes, provides a lack of clarity and wastes people’s time and talents when they have to work around rather than with colleagues.
Alignment doesn’t guarantee success on a rugby field of course. There are a million factors that go into that. Nor does it mean that all parties will always agree. In fact some disagreement is healthy provided there’s the opportunity for open and honest discussion about issues as they occur and an ability to work together to find solutions.
One characteristic of the Wallabies’ success in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the alignment between the Rugby AU’s (now Rugby Australia’s) CEO John O’Neill, head coach Rod Macqueen and captain John Eales – all very different characters but able to identify the overarching goal and work towards it together. The Waratahs need a similar alignment through the board, CEO Paul Doorn, the coaching group and captain Jake Gordon.
It needs to be rooted in reality – for example, winning the trans-Tasman competition in year one may not be realistic unless you are the Crusaders, Brumbies or Reds – and be something that the playing group can buy into.
With goodwill, emotional intelligence and a commitment to their common purpose, the Waratahs can still salvage something from 2021 that will stand them in good stead for 2022.
2. Avoid the sugar hit
New South Wales has the biggest rugby catchment, more players, more (potential) supporters, more rugby media and more rugby history than any other province – pretty much more everything except the ability to make smart, sensible, long-term decisions to support success for the Waratahs and the broader rugby community. So what are the odds they’ll blow next year’s salary cap on recruiting a charismatic coach to rev up the team and win back disenchanted supporters?
Some are already agitating for Michael Cheika’s return, others for Eddie Jones if England cut him loose. This is not to diss either coach, especially Cheika. By sheer force of will he got the monkey off the Tahs’ back in 2014, something even World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer hadn’t quite managed to achieve. It was a fast, exciting ride, and didn’t all long-suffering Tahs fans cheer when Dave Dennis and Michael Hooper hoisted the trophy?
But like all sugar hits – the Wallabies’ 2015 Rugby World Cup tournament is another example – the low has been rock-bottom. The problem with the force-of-nature coach is that their impact doesn’t last much beyond their exit, and thus any succession plan – if there is one – tends to fail.
The alternative way isn’t a sugar hit. There’s no high-profile coach. Nor are there blue fireworks over Sydney harbour, at least not in the short term. This option is the long haul, where hard work, humility and community spirit become the pillars of a powerful legacy for future generations of players, coaches and administrators driven by the collective.
Luckily, the Waratahs have a great example right on their doorstep – well, a few hours down the Hume Highway. The Brumbies have been through something similar to the Tahs, with a star coach in Jake White, who quickly took the team to a Super Rugby final in 2013 and walked soon after. Since then the Brumbies have eschewed the big personalities for a more low-key but focused and steady march forward, latterly under Dan McKellar. There have been ups and downs – it’s only now that they are really rediscovering their attacking groove – but their efforts paid off with a Super AU trophy in 2020.
Players seem to flourish under the Brumbies system. There’s little player movement, even in a city often derided as Australia’s most boring, because players know they’re in good hands. That loyalty breeds stability and cohesion, key ingredients for teams that want to be successful in the long term. As others have said, the glamorous harbour city offers far more distractions than Canberra for young men. But the right head coach and a robust system will weed out the easily distracted early on and ensure those that are committed to optimising their skills and their careers in NSW are given every opportunity to flourish.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking and a Sydney-based team needs a force-of-nature coach to keep wayward players focused, convince cynical fans to get behind the team and strong-arm the blazer brigade. Can New South Wales really do sensible and steady? One thing is certain: any fair-weather fans are long gone. Only the rusted-on are left, and they’re not going anywhere, so this is the perfect time to set up the systems for long-term success.
3. Bring Ned Hanigan home
Thanks for waiting patiently (and possibly with disbelief) to hear about Ned Hanigan’s central role in the Waratahs’ brave new world. We all know Ned’s history, but from a difficult start he really began to hit his straps last year. There’s never been any doubt as to his character, and true to form, he responded to missing out on selection for the 2019 Rugby World Cup squad by captaining the NSW Country Eagles in the NRC, where he suffered the first of a number of concussions.
His return to play coincided with the start of Super Rugby AU last year, when he was a standout for the Tahs in the second row. His improvement was striking, and Wallabies coach Dave Rennie saw enough to pick him for five of the six Test matches the Wallabies played in 2020. But the first time Rennie mentioned him publicly it had nothing to do with selections; it was to highlight how Ned made him laugh every time he opened his mouth.
The thing is, people like Ned. They respond to his authentic good humour and sunny nature. His persona as a knockabout country bloke who loves a yarn with anyone and everyone is about as far as you can get from the ‘sports star’ identity that has tended to attach to Tahs players, fairly or unfairly.
This is not to say that he should be the captain; the energetic Jake Gordon looks like a great choice there. But the team needs multiple leaders, and that includes talismanic warrior Michael Hooper when he returns in 2022. Ned, however, could be the glue that binds everyone together and keeps our city-country connections alive during the rebuild.
So remind Ned that W stands for Waratahs, not Water Gush. Tell him that he’s valued and crucial to our future. Bring him home. We won’t regret it.
4. Fire up the tight five
Rugby success starts up front, everyone knows that – especially poor Waratahs five-eighth Will Harrison, who’s struggled to show his class behind an underperforming pack in 2021. With promises that the purse strings will be loosened ahead of 2022, strategic acquisitions may be necessary to build depth, particularly in the engine room. Without a tight five that can hold its own, the halves will continue to be under constant pressure and opportunities for the backs stifled.
Tighthead prop has already been identified as an area of weakness, and this will only intensify if Harry Johnson-Holmes reverts permanently to loosehead, as he probably should. Can Chris Talakai and Darcy Breen take up the mantle of such Tahs legends as Ewen McKenzie and Sekope Kepu? If not, the search for quality tightheads to form the cornerstone of the Waratahs scrum must be unrelenting.
The Waratahs’ lock stocks are also thin, and the return of Ned Hanigan won’t completely resolve this issue. He’s a fine Super Rugby leaper; what he needs as a partner is a physical, gutsy lumper. It’s hard to see the Kiwi pair or Sam Wykes as more than useful short-term lock options, so the opportunity is there for a couple of young guns to seize their chances the way Trevor Hosea has at the Rebels. Jeremy Williams, Michael Wood and Max Douglas, it’s your time to shine!
The Waratahs should also look at recruiting players with experience. Izack Rodda has chosen the Force and Matt Philip is presumably returning to the Rebels at the end of the French season. With Will Skelton having rejected all attempts to repatriate him in the past and Rory Arnold now aged 30, there’s a golden chance at redemption for former Reds second-rower Harry Hockings, who left for Japan in the wake of the pandemic pay dispute. Has a year in exile made him hungry to revisit his Australian ambitions?
5. Make us believe
Long-time Waratahs supporters will remember the fiery fan forum of a decade ago, when 100-plus supporters gave it to a panel, including then Waratahs coach Chris Hickey and captain Phil Waugh as well as a shell-shocked Drew Mitchell. A main point of contention was the uninspiring style of play. Too much kicking, the fans said – yelled in fact. Faced with the enraged mob, Mitchell wisely decided it was safest to agree, and a year or so later New South Wales’s most passionate disciple of ball-in-hand rugby, Michael Cheika, was installed as head coach.
Right now Waratahs’ mob of supporters is similarly enraged. Unusually the coach and players aren’t the targets. The figure with the bullseye right between his eyes is NSWRU chairman Roger Davis. There’s been disquiet for a while over the way things have been allowed to slide, poor succession planning, the messy departures of key figures and fingerprints left at the scene of a failed Rugby Australia coup. Then came the disastrous decisions that rendered the Waratahs uncompetitive when they should have been putting on a show to impress a new broadcaster and viewers, not to mention the scapegoating of Rob Penney.
The mob isn’t always right and they don’t always have the full picture. Failure, like success, can have many fathers. What can’t be denied, though, is that the mob has seen Rob Penney gamely attempting to manage expectations and remain upbeat following record losses while Davis was uncontactable in the wilds of Tasmania. They’ve seen the team front up and accept the blame for poor performances while Davis refuses requests for interviews and sends out CEO Paul Doorn to confound the public with gobbledegook. Whatever Davis might have achieved outside the Waratahs program, perceptions are such that there can be little forward momentum without the clear air that will come from his prompt departure.
The good news is that Rugby Australia was in a similar situation just a year ago. Incoming chairman Hamish McLennan has been a breath of fresh air. Sure, not every idea he’s had has been a winner, but he’s brought energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to work collaboratively with his team to align the organisation. There’s a sense of cautious optimism around RA and the Wallabies as a result.
The NSW rugby community wants to hope for better days for the Waratahs but need a realistic vision and to understand how it will be achieved. They want a connected community, from grassroots to elite levels, right across the state. They want to see players they know from all walks of life and who’ve come through NSW schools and clubs step up to represent their state and their country. They want the NSWRU prepared to put aside egos and self-interest, do the right things for the right reasons and make them believe again.
With things as they stand it’s hard to see the Waratahs contributing many players to the Wallabies 2023 Rugby World Cup campaign in France. But if a week is a long time in rugby, two years is plenty of time to set the right course and begin seeing the benefits of an aligned organisation, a wisely chosen head coach, a hardworking team of players (including Ned Hanigan) and a vision the entire NSW rugby community can share.
By then the Tahs may be a serious contender for the Super Rugby AU trophy and deserving of more than a handful of spots in a Wallabies training squad.
And looking deeper into the crystal ball, wouldn’t it be wonderful if – a century after the feats of perhaps the state’s greatest-ever rugby team, the 1927–28 Waratahs – New South Wales provided the impetus for a mighty Wallabies campaign in the 2027 Rugby World Cup right here on home soil?