It was a sea-change moment in the fortunes of provincial rugby in Australia. For the first time since the new iteration of Super Rugby began in 2021, the sky blue has climbed above the maroon on a league table ladder. At the same time, the Waratahs have nosed ahead of their bitterest rivals via their number of wins against opponents from New Zealand.
New South Wales has now beaten both the Crusaders and the Highlanders in Super Pacific 2022, while Queensland has to reach all the way back to 29 May 2021 for its sole victory over the Chiefs.
While the Reds remain all-powerful against local opposition, the Tahs have proven the more adaptable and successful against trans-Tasman adversaries. In Sunday evening’s clash against the Highlanders at the Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin, they even felt sufficiently confident to rest forwards like Angus Bell, Jed Holloway and Charlie Gamble, who have been so central to their effectiveness in 2022.
Other first choices like Harry Johnson-Holmes at prop, and Izaia Perese in the centres, were also missing When you have the self-belief to rotate players and still know that your fundamentals are good enough to deliver a competitive performance away from home, you are on to a winner.
For all their dominance at home within Australia, the Reds have yet to take the next step up. Brad Thorn and his charges remain stuck beneath a glass ceiling, while Darren Coleman’s squad has already blown through it. If it raises questions about Thorn’s ability to reach the next level as a head coach, it will assuredly slow the progress of his players towards full Wallaby honours.
Looking ahead to England in July, and the Bledisloe Cup series beyond it, Dave Rennie will prize the players above all, who know how to win games against opponents from outside Australian borders.
Already, there are even more Waratahs looking to join the queue in Rennie’s mind. His initial squad choice included Angus Bell, Dave Porecki, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper and Lachie Swinton up front; and Ben Donaldson, Lalakai Foketi, Jake Gordon, Izaia Perese behind.
If that 40-man group was to be re-selected right now, it is quite likely that others like Ned Hanigan, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Charlie Gamble would be added – at least, when the latter becomes eligible for the Wallabies.
They appear to possess the qualities Darren Coleman is so keen to engender: a sense of humility in the jersey, and a willingness to sacrifice their time to help others. As Coleman’s forwards coach Pauli Taumoepeau commented recently on Charlie Gamble:
“The thing I love about Charlie is I can see there is a genuine appreciation every time he is named, every week. Everyone else would go ‘yeah, of course, he’s first picked’, but Charlie is ‘oh yes, unreal’ and he is so pumped.
“Everyone sees what he gives on the field’ but off the field he is just as impressive. He is always that guy hanging back to help a team-mate do extras: passing, catching, lifting, whatever. You look over, and it’s always Charlie. He is just quality.
“We are still trying to find a fault. Haven’t found it yet.”
As captain Michael Hooper added in the aftermath of the victory at the Forsyth-Barr:
“We’ve got a really good style of play. Our coaches are hard on us when we make mistakes, they tell us about them and they want us to improve. It’s all done in a really good fashion with the idea of becoming a better team and becoming better players – they guys are playing for each other, we’re in a good spot.”
One of the primary benefits of that evident sense of team-ship is that players really believe in a rotation policy at the selection table, which is designed to rest key players and give others in the squad a shot at starting. They trust each other to produce a performance which does not lose too much in comparison with what has gone before, with little or no loss of standards.
At present, that cannot be said of the set-up in Queensland. When the Reds have lost key players ahead of battles against Kiwi opposition, they have struggled to replace them without losing effectiveness.
The second major bonus of rotation is that it allows you to pack your bench with power and quality, and that is the course Darren Coleman chose against the Highlanders. He opted for a 6-2 split between forwards and backs, and looked to the likes of Bell, Hanigan and Gamble to make the difference in the final quarter of the game.
That is exactly what they did. All three entered the fray around the hour mark, just after Scott Gregory’s try had pulled the score back to a slim four-point margin, and the Waratahs then proceeded to rack up the next 13 points to put the outcome of the game beyond doubt.
As Justin Marshall put it during in-game commentary:
“They all added massively for the Waratahs. The players injected by the Highlanders haven’t been able to get themselves into the game like those guys have. The impact from the bench of the Waratahs has been simply outstanding and quite possibly the catalyst for them winning this game.”
The stats in that last 20 minutes make for startling reading:
|Player||Runs||Metres||Defenders beaten||Offloads||Forced turnovers|
Add in energizer bunny Michael Hooper, with his seven runs for 81 metres and one clean break, four defenders beaten, one offload, one forced turnover and game-leading 18 tackles, and you have a formidable final quarter package. It was entirely too much for the Highlanders.
While Ned Hanigan was fulfilling the Holloway role on defence, stopping the ball-carrier high and winning turnover off the deck:
Charlie Gamble was doing the same job on the ground,
Those two on-ball penalties are earned firstly by an automatic tackle-and-jackal in conjunction with Captain Fantastic Michael Hooper, and secondly with fellow super-sub, centre Jamie Roberts.
Nic Berry had obviously been busy reading last week’s article and for once, Angus Bell found himself blessedly free of refereeing censure for collapsing the scrum!
As usual, Gus is free to frolic when the set-piece is going well, both on defence:
This sequence is an excellent example of how new energy can connect off the bench in attack to provide fresh impetus. There are two bits of constructive play by Ned Hanigan – a smooth tip-on pass, and re-ruck over the top of a positive run by another forward replacement (Jeremy Williams), followed by an accurate cut-out pass by Gamble putting Angus Bell through the hole in midfield. Outcome? Penalty given up by a stretched D and another three points.
Both Michael Hooper and Jamie Roberts enjoyed their best performances of the season so far. Hooper scored an excellent try from the base of the ruck (2:45 on the highlight reel).
Then he drew a red card on Sam Gilbert for a dangerous tip tackle [@1:25 on the reel]. Hooper was sympathetic and good as a linking number 7:
Again, it all about joining fresh energy up. Scrum-half Jake Gordon hands on to Hooper, who spins away in the tackle to link with Ned Hanigan, who in turn is able to offload for Lalakai Foketi to take play deep into the Highlanders 22. At the end of the play, Williams is in cleanout support over Foketi and Hanigan has already recycled himself for the next phase of attack.
Here is another sequence illustrating the same theme:
Jamie does what he has done for Wales on countless occasions, winning the first collision to set up Hanigan for the second wave run with Gamble in close support. Another penalty, three more points.
It was much-maligned Ned Hanigan who was the most productive sky blue addition of all off the bench. He iced the match by contributing two strong runs in four phases before making the decisive break and offload to Tane Edmed:
Every round of the cross-border portion of Super Rugby Pacific 2022 that passes brings more encouragement for New South Wales, and more concern for Queensland – despite their laboured 34-22 win against the Moana Pasifika at the Suncorp.
Darren Coleman is steadily building confidence throughout the Waratahs squad, and the virus is spreading quickly. He was able to rotate six front-rank ‘old dependables’ out of his starting line-up and still come away with a convincing victory at the Forsyth-Barr stadium.
It is fair to say that Coleman is breeding self-belief in his charges against Kiwi opposition quicker than Brad Thorn has been able to do in Queensland. The Reds are still too dependent on the presence of key players and their confidence does not flow through the entire depth of the squad. They have yet to develop a playing formula that creates serious problems for teams from Aotearoa.
At the same time Coleman’s bold choices – dropping the likes of Bell, Hanigan and Gamble to the bench and opting for a 6-2 split on the pine – proved to be astutely-judged and won the game for New South Wales in the final quarter. If RA are looking for an Australian coach after Dave Rennie, Darren Coleman is already putting his hand up for the job.
Coleman may find plenty of his players in the Wallaby squad if he gets there. There are ten currently in the 40-man Wallaby squad, but at least three more may get added at the current rate of progress: Ned Hanigan, Mark Nawaqanitawase and Charlie Gamble (when eligible).
If that happens, the ‘sea-change into something rich and strange’ will be complete, and the reigning Super Rugby AU champions may unwittingly find themselves an ever more distant image in Dave Rennie’s rear-view mirror.