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Five things: Where DC got it wrong with Tahs, perception and reality for Wallabies hopeful as Test bolter shines

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5 days ago
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It’s not just the 2024 campaign that has raised serious questions about the Waratahs, but their 2023 Super Rugby season too.

Having limped into last year’s finals series after being shocked at home by Moana Pasifika, the Waratahs’ 2024 season has been nothing short of a disaster.

Two wins from 11 matches tell a story, but so do the 16 players currently sidelined. Fifteen of those injuries are forwards, with prop Harry Johnson-Holmes the latest to go down.

The 27-year-old was the last of the ten contracted front-rowers left standing ahead of Saturday’s 29-21 loss to the Brumbies.

The anguish was written all over Darren Coleman’s face as Johnson-Holmes clutched at his Achilles.

Darren Coleman has endured a difficult year as Waratahs head coach in the face of an injury crisis. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Making matters worse, Pone Fa’amausili, who was drafted into the Waratahs last week on loan from the Rebels, has been called back after Taniela Tupou suffered a concussion during the opening stages of his side’s four-point loss to the Reds in Brisbane.

The injuries don’t just raise questions about the program being run at Daceyville, who this year handed the keys to Rugby Australia after aligning themselves with the national body, but also the list put together.

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Although there’s no doubt Coleman has had no luck with his list, not a single one of his props is older than 28.

In a game where experience and conditioning can matter up front, the Waratahs have one of the youngest front-rows in the competition.

Is it a coincidence that they’ve been hit hardest up front? Is it a surprise that the Waratahs’ two most experienced props, Johnson-Holmes and Hayden Thompson-Stringer, went down last when they were pushed to the brink over the past week?

Harry Johnson-Holmes (R) and Hayden Thompson-Stringer (L) both suffered injuries last week for the Waratahs. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

After all, 23-year-old loose-head props Angus Bell and Tom Lambert have struggled with setbacks throughout their blossoming but injury-riddled careers. Ditto, Archer Holtz, 24, and Daniel Botha, 23, who have both spent significant time on the sidelines.

Compare it to the Reds, where three out of the side’s four props that took to the field on Friday were 33, including international props Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and Peni Ravai, and it presents an interesting point of difference.

The Brumbies have the experienced Test duo Allan Alaalatoa and James Slipper, who missed Saturday’s win over the Waratahs, up front as well as 27-year-old Fred Kautai playing regularly.

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At the same time, Stephen Larkham also has props developing through the system like Blake Schoupp and Harry Vella, who surprise, surprise, have had injury setbacks early in their career.

But at least the Brumbies can often turn to their older stagers around them.

The Waratahs can’t, and that’s the issue.

Having spent money on outside backs ahead of the 2023 campaign, Coleman tried to fix the disjointed nature of his squad ahead of the 2024 campaign but he was playing catch up.

It’s proven to be a costly mistake.

The next would be NSW Rugby chief executive Paul Doorn issuing another review. It’s not necessary.

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WALLABIES BOLTER EMERGES OUT WEST

Jeremy Williams isn’t exactly a new kid on the block, but the first-year Western Force captain has spent most of the season out of sight and out of mind.

After being announced as the Force’s new captain a week out from the season commencing, the 23-year-old missed the first half of the season due to concussion symptoms. It was a massive blow after being the side’s best player by a country mile in 2023.

Since he’s returned, the second-rower has been superb.

He was strong off the bench against the Highlanders under the roof and then still made an impact in a badly bruised and beaten team against the Chiefs.

On Saturday, he produced the eye-catching performance he has long craved. Even better, it was in front of Joe Schmidt.

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Given some space on the fringes inside the first minute, Williams turned on the afterburners and showed some serious pace to send Chase Tiatia to score.

He finished the evening with 13 tackles and 50 metres from his nine carries, which was backed up by playing his part in a much-improved lineout.

While Williams isn’t necessarily a giant, the 195cm lock could easily be an international blindside flanker.

He doesn’t just have the size, but he has the pace and work-rate to be a serious option.

ARVO FOOTY DELIGHT

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A fortnight ago, we saw the Brumbies host the Hurricanes in what proved to be a fabulous occasion.

The weather played its part and the rugby was top-notch.

Last Saturday afternoon we witnessed another top-shelf match between the two competition favourites.

In the end, the Blues held on to win 31-27 after holding out the Hurricanes on their line.

It was a Test match intensity.

The fans showed up to watch, too.

Indeed, almost 26,000 turned up to watch the New Zealand derby.

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It was an important showing for a code that is on edge currently about crowd attendance, with the New Zealand Warriors becoming sexy again over the past 16 months.

The consensus out of the match was the game needs more afternoon fixtures.

It does, and it should grow up and join the NRL and AFL by playing Sunday afternoon fixtures to allow it.

Without South Africa in the competition, there can’t be any more excuses about quick turnarounds.

AMATOSERO ARRIVES

It wasn’t just the Force’s captain who stood tall on Saturday but Waratahs lock Miles Amatosero as well.

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The lock returned to Sydney from France late last year with a reputation to match his giant frame.

It’s not that he hadn’t lived up to the hype yet, but rather that he was always going to take time to get up to speed.

Standing at 203cm and hitting the scales just over 120 kilograms, that’s a lot to carry around for a 21-year-old.

So far Amatosero had shown glimpses of what he was capable of but on Saturday he was at his very best.

Miles Amatosero had his best game yet for the Waratahs during their narrow loss to the ACT Brumbies at Allianz Stadium on May 11, 2024. (Photo by Izhar Khan/Getty Images)

He carried the ball strongly, was busy in defence but it was his ability to swim through one Brumbies maul that stood out. From there, Amatosero grew in confidence.

While it would be too early for Amatosero to be thrown in against Wales, he’s the sort of pet project Australian rugby needs to invest in. He looks like someone for Schmidt’s first Spring Tour.

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PERCEPTION VERSUS REALITY

Josh Flook has been one of the Reds’ most reliable and consistent players since debuting for the Queensland Reds.

But he continues to struggle to shake the perception he’s too small for international rugby.

Twice on Friday night he got belted by Nick Jooste.

To Flook’s credit he didn’t just keep going, he broke the line from a kick restart in the 57th minute as he broke through Jordan Uelese and Cabous Eloff. All of this with a AC issue in his shoulder, which he carried into the game.

Yet, for as competent as he is, whether Schmidt picks him in the wider Wallabies squad remains to be seen.

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There’s more than a hint of Conrad Smith in Flook, but he doesn’t have a Ma’a Nonu figure inside him either despite Hunter Paisami playing well above his fighting weight.

Flook’s opposite on Friday, Filipo Daugunu, however, continues to show what he’s capable of.

Since becoming an outside centre option midway through last year with the Reds, the Wallabies back has reinvented himself.

On Friday, he once again showed he’s an extra on-ball threat but he also sent Andrew Kellaway in to score with a lovely short ball.

He’s pressing for a Wallabies recall.

Christy Doran’s Australian Super Rugby team of the week

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Isaac Kailea, Tom Horton, Sam Talakai, Jeremy Williams, Miles Amatosero, Rob Valetini, Carlo Tizzano, Tuaina Taii Tualima, Jake Gordon, Ben Donaldson, Dylan Pietsch, Tamati Tua, Filipo Daugunu, Bayley Kuenzle, Kurtley Beale

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