The Roar
The Roar

Advertisement

Moment of truth looms for Coleman’s Waratahs - and more is on the line for NSW should their season come to naught

22nd February, 2024
Advertisement
Autoplay in... 6 (Cancel)
Up Next No more videos! Playlist is empty -
Replay
Cancel
Next
Editor
22nd February, 2024
26
1444 Reads

The unease permeating around Australian rugby is hard to miss, but it seems especially potent right now if you are a Waratahs fan.

An unflattering trials campaign, the move of all operations under the roof of Rugby Australia as part of the new centralisation program, and trying to make amends after an underperforming campaign last year – it would be fair to say that Darren Coleman has one of the toughest assignments across Aussie rugby this year.

There were high hopes that Coleman, a New South Welshman through and through who has led two Shute Shield clubs to premiership success, plus excelling in the MLR in the United States, would take to the NSW coaching role like a duck to water, and his first season in charge did show exceptional promise.

However, 2023 saw Coleman exposed in multiple ways – a botched pre-season that saw the team focus on physicality over tactical decisions. 

Watch every match of Super Rugby Pacific ad-free, live & on demand on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport

Not only did it put the Tahs behind the eight-ball when they came up against sides who had studied their game plan, but such a physical approach exposed significant depth issues, as many backup players could not match the same level of physicality.

Now, as Coleman heads into his third year in charge, Tahs fans find themselves asking an incredible question: is DC, a man warmly regarded as one of the best coaching talents to come out of the Shute Shield, the right man to lead the Tahs forward?

2024 Summary 

Advertisement

A new year comes with new chances to right the wrongs of the past, and Coleman was the first to admit he got much of the 2023 pre-season wrong. He also has a record of bouncing back from failures, such as taking learnings from losing the 2016 NRC Grand Final and applying them in  2017 to hand Warringah their first Shute Shield.

However, Super Rugby is a different beast, and although it should be noted these games were only trials, the Tahs looked notably off the pace in both of their warm-up games – losing 38-12 to the Melbourne Rebels and 32-7 to the Queensland Reds. Even their ‘A’ side struggled to put away the likes of the Rats and Marlins, winning 10-0 and drawing 7-all respectively. 

The Waratahs have far from impressed in trials leading up to the 2024 season. (Photo by Morgan Hancock/Getty Images)

Bar one in-house trial against an NSW Pasifika side late last year, these matches were the first real trials for the Waratahs since bowing out of the quarter-finals in Auckland last year – all other Aussie Super Rugby teams engaged in tours and fixtures against oppositions in South Africa or Japan.

It does paint a picture at present of a team coming into the season either undercooked, underprepared or off the pace. 

Of course, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves, as trial games mean nothing once the season gets underway. Add to that, it would be naive to assume Coleman doesn’t have something up his sleeve, given he encountered such issues with preseason last year. Trials are all about combinations and trying new things.

But, it is also important to remember that Coleman does have a different squad this year – with 12 players departing the SFS after 2023 and a further six returning to the Shute Shield. Among the departures include Wallabies Tolu Latu, Kurtley Beale, Ben Donaldson, and Tetera Faulkner… oh, and did we mention Michael Hooper?

Advertisement

Coleman and his coaching staff have accounted for the personnel departure with several key signings, and the hope is such signings will not only fill the holes left by the departed players but also address the depth issues exposed by the game plan implemented last year. 

Squad & New Inclusions

The Waratahs will welcome ten new players into their ranks this year, and notably, all players have come from other Super Rugby franchises, overseas outfits or from rugby league. 

This is a smart move by Coleman and the recruiting team, for two key reasons: to build the depth up behind the starting side with players familiar with the level of intensity Super Rugby provides; and to increase competition for spots in the starting side. If a player underperforms, there’s a perfectly good backup behind them.

One of the biggest areas exposed last year was the forward pack, which makes the arrival of Tom Ross from the Brumbies and Hayden Thompson-Stringer from La Rochelle so important. Angus Bell will be almost certain to start in the front row and while he’ll also be accompanied by the 80-capped Waratah Harry Johnson-Holmes, many of the backup options in Tom Lambert and Daniel Botha struggled to adapt to Super Rugby intensity. 

David Porecki will be critical for the Waratahs forward pack in 2024. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Advertisement

The Rebels Theo Fourie will also be a welcome addition in the hooker position and will compete with Mahe Vailanu as to who will start behind Wallabies captain Dave Porecki.

The Tahs have also recruited well in the locks, with Wallabies Jed Holloway, Ned Hanigan and valuable backup Hugh Sinclair set to be joined by Miles Amatosero, one of Australia’s most exciting forward prospects, following a stint at Clermont.

Fijian international Mesu Kunavula will join return NSW prospect Fergus Lee-Warner and former Western Force loose forward Ned Slack-Smith to fill the Michael Hooper-sized gap, joining a talent group of players in Charlie Gamble, Langi Gleeson and Lachlan Swinton.

One of the key successes for the Waratahs last year was the surprisingly strong performance of their backline, which will be well boosted by Jack Grant supporting Jake Gordon in the halves, and league converts Vuate Karawalevu and Triston Reilly set to create plenty of competition in the back three. 

The flyhalves and centres position remain unchanged, and with Tane Edmed supported by Will Harrison alongside Wallabies Lalakai Foketi and Izaia Perese, 2024 should allow them to continue their growth into an even stronger combination. 

The backline of the Waratahs was one of the key successes of 2023. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Squad: *denotes new signing

Advertisement

Props: Angus Bell, Daniel Botha, Archer Holz, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Tom Lambert, Tom Ross*, Hayden Thompson-Stringer* 

Hookers: Theo Fourie*, Dave Porecki, Mahe Vailanu

Locks: Miles Amatosero*, Ned Hanigan, Jed Holloway, Hugh Sinclair

Loose Forwards: Charlie Gamble, Langi Gleeson, Mesu Kunavula*, Fergus Lee-Warner*, Ned Slack-Smith*, Lachlan Swinton

Scrumhalves: Jake Gordon, Jack Grant*, Teddy Wilson

Flyhalves: Jack Bowen, Tane Edmed, Will Harrison

Centres: Lalakai Foketi, Izaia Perese, Mosese Tuipulotu, Joey Walton

Advertisement

Wingers & Fullbacks: Vuate Karawalevu*, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Dylan Pietsch, Triston Reilly*, Harry Wilson, Max Jorgensen

Will 2023 be the last year of Darren Coleman in charge? (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Strengths & Weaknesses

It is interesting to note at this point that, despite the trial results, Coleman has put together a pretty decent squad here. All positions have a key starting favourite with at least a few decent options. 

The key weaknesses of the front row should be addressed with the inclusion of Ross and Thompson-Stringer, meaning the forward pack should be a lot more durable should the likes of Bell go down with injury. 

This is similar in both the locks and loose forwards, and in the backline the likes of Mosese Tuipulotu and Joey Walton, alongside a lethal back three in Mark Nawaqanitawase, Dylan Pietsch and newcomer Max Jorgensen offer plenty of attacking punch, variety and go forward.

Yet, despite this, the issues in 2024 lie not necessarily with the squad’s depth, but the tactics and priorities they’ll choose to go with. 2023 saw a course correction mid-way through the season, and as a result, the Waratahs did not fare well in either attack or defence.

Advertisement

They sat second last in the whole competition in clean breaks, carries, and metres gained and sat dead last on defenders beaten, meaning teams found them incredibly easy to defend against. When you implement the same plans from 2022 and don’t adjust accordingly when an opposition has done their homework, you’re going to have a tough time winning games.

Then there is their defence, which despite finishing in sixth last year, ended with a point differential of -21. While they were competitive in most games, the Tahs were shown to be bullied on occasion, with big scores racked up against them on trips to Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington.

Coleman has to make sure his approach with this squad doesn’t repeat the tactical mistakes of last year. His recruitment looks on paper to have addressed some of the depth issues, but the team is still looking far from firing on all cylinders. It is a tenuous position, especially with plans for his contract extension apparently determined by his opening five weeks. 

Fixtures

The Waratahs commence their 2023 campaign tomorrow night when they face the Reds in Brisbane, and will be hoping to turn their fortunes around quickly given the drubbing Les Kiss’ side delivered to them in trials. They then face arguably the toughest fixture in the Super Round, when they play the Crusaders in Melbourne.

Following this though, the Tahs will enjoy back-to-back clashes at home against the Highlanders and the Blues, a great opportunity to string some wins together before a trip to Fiji to face the Drua. Despite the challenge of Lautoka, the Tahs so far have a good record against the Drua and will be looking to keep that going. 

Advertisement

The Tahs will then return home for a clash against the Rebels, before two very difficult matches back-to-back ahead of the bye: an away fixture against the Brumbies and then hosting the Crusaders a second time in Sydney.

Max Jorgensen will be eased into the season after a period spent on the sidelines. (Photo by Pete Dovgan/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The tough fixtures continue after the bye, with the Chiefs making the journey across the Tasman to Sydney, followed by a trip to Wellington and then returning home for the corresponding Brumbies clash at the SFS. 

This period on either side of the bye will be a hard few weeks for the Tahs, and it won’t be helped by their run home. They’ll finish their season with a trip across the Nullabor to face the Force, followed immediately by a trip to Auckland to face Moana Pasifika, whom they lost to in 2023. For the final match of the regular season, they return home for their traditional clash with the Queensland Reds, ending the season the same way as it’ll start. 

Predicted Finish: 9th

There is no sugar-coating it: the draw is one of the hardest of the Super Rugby sides this year. With tough home fixtures in back-to-back weeks on multiple occasions, it’ll be hard for the Tahs to build form and maintain momentum unless they grab wins quickly.

Granted, there is a good squad here – but in that case, the season essentially lives and dies on Coleman’s tactical decision-making and whether he can translate it to the team effectively. The results of the season will determine whether he has learnt from the lessons of 2023, and if he is the right man to lead the sky-blue state forwards. 

Advertisement
close