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Opinion

Are the Waratahs the real deal in 2022?

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Expert
22nd February, 2022
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Sometimes, good things take time. Recognition has arrived on the doorstep of Lalakai Foketi relatively late in his rugby career.

After representing Australia at under-20 level as long ago as the 2013 season and making the Melbourne Rebels’ extended squad the year after, the waters becalmed.

Two unremarkable spells, at Bayonne in the southwest of France, and with Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, followed. The wind in Foketi’s sails only picked up in his fifth season as a professional, after signing on with the ailing Waratahs franchise in Super Rugby.

It took another four years for Foketi to achieve any international acknowledgement.

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Even then it did not come easily, and Lalakai was a member of Dave Rennie’s squad for no less than 12 Tests, before finally getting the nod for the match-day 23 ahead of the end-of-year tour game against Wales on November 20 2021. He was one month short of his 27th birthday.

It has been a long and winding road indeed. In tune with the character of his career as a whole, Foketi only got on to the field for the final eight minutes of the game. He was the final replacement made by either side in the match, and the last afterthought on Australia’s European sojourn overall.

For all of those 12 preceding Tests, Lalakai Foketi would try to avoid bumping into Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie in the hotel corridors during selection week.

“Normally, ‘Rens’ comes around the room or the hotel with a black book looking for you if you’re unfortunate not to make the 23,” he said.

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“I’ve been there for a while now, so I’ve had a few of them, so I was waiting, waiting for him to come up to me [before the Wales match] – and he never did.

“And when 22 came up on the screen in the team meeting and my name was announced, I was grateful – and shocked.”

Rennie showed an appreciation of his talents which had previously flown under the radar:

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“Lalakai’s trained the house down. He deserves the opportunity. He gives us versatility, can generally cover 12 and 13, excellent distributor, really good feet, making really big shifts around the physical side of his game, a clean tackler with a really good kicking game and a really good communicator.”

Foketi’s career progression describes the perfect graph for Darren Coleman’s own coaching lifetime, as well as the brave, but understated new world he envisages for the Waratahs.

Coleman has coached all over the world, at home with Gordon and Warringah, abroad in countries as far afield as Italy, Japan and the west coast of the Unites States, though seldom in a true rugby hotspot.

In an interview for Stan Sport’s Rugby Heaven, he remembered the length of the journey, saying, “I’ve got that connection with the place, with NSW – and my Dad was a big supporter of me. He’d be looking down and be pretty proud that I stuck at it and it’s turned out well.”

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Coleman’s message for the NSW faithful has been characteristically muted:

“Reserve judgment, give us a chance to get on the field next year and win your support back and win your respect.”

There are going to be no short cuts, no trimmed corners for Coleman’s Waratahs, and the journey started on Friday with a solid win on their first hit out against the newly-constituted Fijian Drua. It was the first victory in 14 competitive games for the men in sky blue.

If New South Wales are to be successful under Darren Coleman, that success will be dependent on players like Foketi as much as his star-quality partner in the centres, Izaia Perese. Progress will be steady, dearly-won, and not easily relinquished. Those are not features you associate with the profligate Waratahs’ sides of recent vintage.
It begins with defence, and Foketi already flagged up his value on that front in the game against the Drua:

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In the first example, Foketi is joined in a vital hold-up turnover tackle close to the NSW goal-line by number 8 Will Harris and loose-head prop Angus Bell; in the second, he surreptitiously drops one knee to the ground on the blind-side of referee Nic Berry in order to achieve optimal position on the jackal.

The attacking quality in New South Wales’ play moving forward looks as though it will be based firmly around the interplay between the midfield triangle of number 10 Ben Donaldson and centres Foketi and Perese, and the ball-handling ability of forwards like Bell, Jed Holloway and Michael Hooper, when he returns to the fray.

Immediately after his first tackle turnover, Foketi was back on the ball at first receiver from the following scrum:

The ball goes behind Perese with Donaldson looking to link up with his outside backs on the left as the second passer. The Waratahs used another variation of the same move from lineout in the second period:

On this occasion, the ball goes from Foketi through Perese with Ben Donaldson circling around behind him to take the return ball and link with the back three. Foketi will also be factor in taking pressure of his young number 10 in the kicking game:

Perhaps the Waratahs’ biggest single point of difference in Super Rugby Pacific 2022 will be the ball-playing bonus they can squeeze out of forwards like Angus Bell, in combination with their inside backs:

This is Donaldson and Foketi working in combination with Bell, but working within the same expectation they might have of Izaia Perese in a similar situation. Foketi fully expects Bell to take a typical outside centre’s line, fading beyond the defender and hooking the pass back for the Tahs’ number 12 on the inside:

Gus Bell may not have Perese’s speed or acceleration, but he does have the footballing sense of a back. It was not the only time his ability to pick the right line on attack resulted in a try:

The loose-head sees the Drua defence condense around the short tip-on pass to number 5 Geoff Cridge, and picks the perfect pathway to the outside on the end of Holloway’s delivery.

His rumble around the end of the lineout and quick presentation also set up the position for the first try of the tournament:

The sheer number of Bell’s decisive involvements in the game bely his age. It already seems like he has been around the scene forever. As his hooker Dave Porecki commented back in December:

“You can have all the appreciation in the world for being a professional player but sometimes it takes a couple of years of experience to actually understand what it takes to be competitive week on week, everything it takes to be a professional – you don’t learn that as a first-year player…

“You’ve got someone like Angus Bell, who just turned 21 and we talk about him like he’s an experienced mature international. He’s still only 21 but he’s had that game experience, that experience in that professional world-class environment to understand what it takes to perform and I think those attributes in a player, regardless of age, is amazing for a team.”

In addition to Gus Bell’s huge contributions on attack, there were turnovers on D:

Tack on a gaggle of penalty-winning scrums against the patchwork Drua front row:

Anytime the tighthead prop finishes swimming straight across the tunnel towards the far side-line, it is fair to say that his opponent has trimmed him up properly. It will not be so easy when Australia’s two best footballing props – Bell and Taniela Tupou – lock horns in next week’s derby between NSW and Queensland, that is for certain.

Summary
The Waratahs have done exactly what it said on Coleman’s tin when he took over the franchise.

They have shown more togetherness and some clear improvement in their pre-season matches, and it was on display in the first round of Super Rugby Pacific proper versus the Fijian Drua.

There are some question-marks about the structure on defence – anyone for an eerie reprise of the ‘musical chairs’ Cheika/Grey era, with Ben Donaldson starting in the tramlines from lineout?

But overall, there are sound reasons to believe that the New South Welshmen are capable of winning 50 per cent of their matches in 2022, especially with big names like Michael Hooper and Ned Hanigan still to come back in. Needless to say, that is a big step up from winning no games at all.

Will it be enough to topple the champion Reds at Leichhardt Oval in a few days’ time? Unlikely – but a defeat will not be on the scale as the two games in 2021, which Queensland won by a combined score of 87-21.

Win or lose, Darren Coleman will find ways for his team to learn and develop, and take it in his stride.

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