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'Clean slate': Tahs hope Eddie effect fires players up, 10 battle explained, schoolboy prodigy impresses

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2nd February, 2023
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Australian rugby has got used to players being rotated in and out for all sorts of reasons, but rising Waratahs assistant coach Jason Gilmore has given a clear indication the franchise will take a hierarchical approach to selection in 2023.

It wasn’t long ago that the Waratahs were scratching around to make up the numbers, but after winning back respect last year, their schoolboy class has graduated and are poised to challenge for the top four in Super Rugby this year.

Depth has been Australian rugby’s great issue for the past decade, but at the Waratahs at least, they have selection headaches in most position groupings.

The race for the fly-half and fullback positions particularly are fascinating, with two-capped Wallaby Ben Donaldson in a battle against his Australia A teammate Tane Edmed to wear the No.10 jersey. While Max Jorgensen, the immensely talented schoolboy sensation, is set to be rubber-stamped as a fully-fledged Super Rugby player as he prepares for his round-one audition by starting at fullback against the Brumbies on Saturday.

Former Wallabies coach Dave Rennie took Donaldson on his end-of-season tour last year, but the Waratahs believed Edmed, who led the Waratahs for much of the year in 2022 and saw them to historic victory over the Crusaders in Sydney, could easily have been picked instead.

Tane Edmed of the Waratahs passes during the round 15 Super Rugby Pacific match between the NSW Waratahs and the Blues at Leichhardt Oval on May 28, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Rising Waratahs playmakers Tane Edmed (above) and Ben Donaldson have both been name-dropped by new Wallabies coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

While Donaldson has been chosen to start at No.10 against the Brumbies in their first trial match of the year, with Edmed outside him at inside centre, the Waratahs say they will do what’s best for them even if it means not starting the incumbent Wallabies playmaker.

“We’re mindful that obviously Ben is a Wallaby, but it’s the Waratahs so we’ve got to pick the best five-eighth that suits how we play,” Gilmore said.

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“The beauty of the season is we can rotate them and give them equal time, and if there’s an injury we know we’ve got good backup there as well.”

But one thing is certain, the Waratahs won’t be experimenting once the first whistle goes on February 24.

“I’m a traditionalist with that [selection],” Gilmore said.

“You rotate when fatigue and that stuff starts to build in. I don’t think you can chop and change week to week because then you lose your combination and that goes out the back door.

“We don’t play a 26-round comp, we play 16 rounds, so I think when you need to rotate this year it’ll be with Wallaby stand down or load once you start the bank up 7-8-9 games. I think rotation you’ve got to be really careful with.”

Dylan Pietsch of the Waratahs.

Dylan Pietsch has re-signed with the Waratahs and says the players have a “second wind” after a coaching change ahead of the World Cup. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Adding to the importance of starting well is that there’s a new Wallabies coach in town.

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A number of players, including Donaldson and Edmed, have been name-dropped by Jones, which has given hope and added to the intrigue of what the vastly experienced coach is thinking.

Re-signed winger Dylan Pietsch, who missed out on Wallabies selection but had a breakout season in 2022 after switching over from rugby sevens and was a standout on the Australian A tour of Fiji and Japan, said Jones’ arrival had given players not selected under Dave Rennie a “second wind”.

Gilmore said he was hoping the coaching change would ensure no one was resting on their laurels heading into the season, with first impressions vital.

“DC [Darren Coleman] spoke about that in the first meeting when we found out Eddie was coming in, it’s a clean slate,” Gilmore said.

“From our point of view, we’d like to think that the boys have to push hard to show form and show what they can do. I definitely think all clubs will be looking at it that their boys are going to play out of their skin to put their hand up for Eddie. Hopefully that benefits us.”

After six Australia A matches last year, as well as 14 Wallaby Tests, Gilmore said the Waratahs were walking taller than they have for years after having many of their players involved in the two representative sides.

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“It’s just that confidence when they come back,” Gilmore said.

“Even guys like Jed Holloway and Dave Porecki when they come back from Wallabies, when they’ve played at that level, but also performed well, they’re walking a little bit taller and they’ve got a bit more confidence about themselves to back themselves on the football field.

“So Marky (Nawaqanitawase) and those guys are the big ones that you notice but a guy like Hugh Sinclair, whether he plays Wallabies or not, who knows, it’s probably a bit of a reach at the moment for him, but just thinking how proud he was to pull on an Australian jersey at a senior level, that could be the pinnacle of his career. For the young guys it’s unreal, but also for those older blokes, it gives them a real sense of achievement.”

Waratahs defence coach Jason Gilmore said handling the pressure in 2023 was important. Photo: Matt King/Getty Images

Gilmore, who coached the Australia A side to a series victory in Japan, said the representative side not only bridged the gap for players but benefitted the coaches too.

“I absolutely loved it,” the Waratahs defence coach said.

“Different level, you’re working with different coaches that have new ideas and you’ve got to share, you’re coaching different players that aren’t used to your style or system or anything like that, so how you adapt and blend a group together coming from five different franchises really quickly was a challenge and I personally found it really rewarding.

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“Rugby Australia’s got Matt Wilkie, who’s our coach development manager, he’s with you on the trip, so you’ve done a lot of one on one work with him with your coaching on an individual basis as well.

“I definitely found I came out of the program with a couple of new little tools that I can use so that I’m a better coach.”

While Gilmore admitted the Waratahs managed to go under the radar in 2022, where they beat the Crusaders and Highlanders away, he said the side would have to stay “humble” throughout the season to ensure they met their expectations.

“The Kiwis aren’t going to take as lightly as last year, they’re not going to rest all their players,” he said.

“We’ve got Wallabies standdown this year that you’ve got to manage your squad on, so that’s going to throw another challenge in.

“The expectation is going to be a lot higher, we’re in the new facility and our new place, we know that, so performing under pressure is our real big thing that we’ve worked on over the pre-season.

“But looking at it in a good way, if you don’t have expectations, no one rates you.  I think last year no one rated us, so we got through it whereas we’ve got a bit more expectation.”

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Max Jorgensen is set to feature in Super Rugby in 2023. Photo: Supplied

Meanwhile, Gilmore said he was impressed by Jorgensen’s desire to learn during his first pre-season and said whether he starts against the Brumbies or not in the No.15 jersey at Allianz Stadium on February 24 will come down to how he fares during the trials over the next fortnight.

“He’s trained the house down,” Gilmore said. “He’s a guy that asks a lot of questions.

“What I’ve been most impressed about him, he’s obviously a superstar coming out of school, but he doesn’t think he’s above anything. He’s always on the video, he’s always asking questions, he’s really receptive to feedback, so that gives me a lot of confidence that he’ll accelerate quickly.

“Whether he’s up to it, we’ll find out in the next few weeks. It’s a big ask for a young kid. He’s going to have stuff that will challenge him like high ball, positional play, kicking, which you don’t really get at schoolboy level, so this weekend, I’m really keen to see how it goes. Yeah, there’ll be mistakes in there, but there’ll be some good stuff in there as well.”

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